The End of the Innocence: Railroading Marcellus Williams to Death Row

Marcellus Williams. Photo: Williams’ defense team.

On August 11, 1998, someone broke into the home of Felicia Gayle and stabbed her 43 times with a butcher’s knife swiped from her kitchen. Gayle’s murder took place in open daylight inside a gated community in University City, a suburb of St. Louis, where she lived with her husband Dr Daniel Picus, a radiologist. Picus discovered her body at the bottom of the stairs when he came home from work around 8 in the evening. The murder weapon was still lodged in her neck. Felicia Gayle, a former reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, was 42 years old at the time of her death.

Several items were stolen from the Gayle-Picus home, including Gayle’s jacket and purse and her husband’s old Apple laptop computer.  It was, as prosecutors often say, an evidence-rich crime scene. Gayle’s murderer left behind footprints in her blood, fingerprints, hair, and, most crucially, DNA on the knife he used to kill her.

The problem was: none of the evidence implicated the person the DA charged, tried, convicted, and sentenced to death for the crime. That person was Marcellus Williams, who has spent the last 25 years on death row for a murder he didn’t commit. Now the Missouri Supreme Court has set an execution date for Williams on  September 24, even though no court has ever reviewed the evidence that proves Williams’ innocence.

Originally, the police believed that Gayle’s murder was the result of a botched robbery and resembled a similar break-in/murder that had occurred in a nearby home weeks earlier, where the murder weapon was also left protruding from the victim’s body. This avenue of investigation fizzled out.

Even though there was plenty of evidence left at the scene of Gayle’s murder, the cops made little progress in the case for months.  Frustrated that the investigation had stalled, in May 1999 Gayle’s family put up a $10,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction in the case. The lure of money attracted the attention of two highly suspect police informants: Henry Cole and Lara Asaro.

Henry Cole was the first to contact the cops. Cole, who had a robust criminal rap sheet, claimed that Marcellus Williams confessed to the murder of Felicia Gayle during a conversation while they were both in jail on unrelated charges. Aside from fingering Williams, nothing Cole told the cops was new. All of the information Cole spilled to the police had been widely reported in TV and newspaper coverage of the murder.

The second person to inform on Williams was a woman named Lara Asaro, who also had a criminal record and was currently facing solicitation charges. Asaro, who had enjoyed a brief sexual relationship with Williams, told the cops and prosecutors multiple versions of her story, several of them inconsistent with previous versions and with the testimony of Cole. Both witnesses against Williams were known liars. Both faced criminal charges. Both were seeking to capitalize financially on testifying against him.

At trial, the prosecution’s story was this: Williams took a bus from St. Louis to Universal City. Somehow he entered the exclusive white neighborhood without being noticed and targeted the Picus house. He rang the bell. When no one answered, Williams broke a window and entered the house. He heard running water from a shower and began ransacking the kitchen. Then he saw the diminutive Felicia Gayle coming down the stairs. He grabbed a knife. A struggle ensued. He stabbed and sliced her 43 times, leaving the knife lodged in her neck. He swiped a purse and a bag with the Macbook, leaving behind a house of valuables and $400 cash, and fled without being seen. He then road the bus home, still spattered with Gayle’s blood.

There was no direct evidence presented against Williams at his trial to support any element of this scenario. No eyewitnesses. No fingerprints. No bloodstains or DNA. The murder took place in daylight inside a gated community. But none of the neighbors could identify Marcellus Williams as being in the private subdivision at the time of the killing. There was no evidence that Williams knew Gayle or had a motive to rob or kill her or that he had any familiarity with her gated neighborhood. There were hairs found on Gayle’s body. But they didn’t match the hair samples taken from Williams. There were bloody footprints left at the scene, but they weren’t Williams’ size. 

The two witnesses against Williams weren’t credible. Even Cole’s family members said he was a liar. He didn’t come forward with his story, which kept changing up until trial, until enticed by the reward money. Before ratting out Williams to the cops, Cole asked the detectives, “Ain’t no way I can get any kind of money at all upfront?” In fact, Cole said in a 2001 deposition that he wouldn’t have come forward at all if he hadn’t been rewarded for his testimony with the $5,000 he was given by the prosecution.

After his testimony against Williams, Cole continued to be treated generously by the state of Missouri. In 2006, Cole pleaded guilty to the armed robbery of a bank. His sentence of 10 years in prison was suspended and he was ordered to serve four years on probation. Cole, who’d contracted HIV, was desperate to stay out of prison, telling prosecutors: “If I go to prison I will surly [sic] die.” Even though Cole violated the terms of his parole 16 times, he was never sent back to jail.

Cole, a longtime drug user who’d battled addictions to both crack cocaine and heroin, had been in and out of psych wards and on and off psych meds for years, before testifying against Williams. He admitted that the drugs left him with a shoddy memory and made him prone to hallucinations.

Cole’s testimony evolved to fit the prosecution’s theory of the case, but still contained numerous contradictions and fabrications. For example,

+ Cole originally said Williams confessed to him after reading a story on the murder in the St. Louis Dispatch. But at trial, Cole testified Williams opened up to him after watching a story on the case on the six o’clock news.

+ Cole told the police that Williams said he took a shirt from the house. But at trial, he testified Williams said he took a sweater. [Neither a shirt nor a sweater were missing from the house.]

+ In his police interviews, Cole never mentioned anything about Williams wearing gloves. But he later testified that Williams told him he wasn’t worried about leaving fingerprints because he wore gloves during the break-in and murder. [Bloody fingerprints were found at the scene. But they weren’t identified as belonging to Williams.]

+ Cole said that Williams told him he targeted the Picus-Gayle house because a large tree in front of the house shielded the front door and porch. There was a tree in the front yard of the house, but it didn’t block the view of the porch or front door.

+ Cole claimed that Williams told him he went upstairs, where he snatched Gayle’s purse and the Apple laptop. But Dr. Picus told police that Gayle kept her purse in the kitchen closet on the first floor.

Cole’s nephew Durwin Cole later told investigators for St. Louis DA Wesley Bell: “Everyone in the family knew that Henry made up the story about Marcellus committing the Felicia Gayle homicide.” The nephew said that Cole made up the story because “he wanted the money and wanted to leave town and go to New York.”

Lara Asaro was a longtime police snitch, whose veracity had been repeatedly questioned by the cops who ran her as an informant. Asaro had lied about her own arrest record in a sworn deposition. She also claimed that Williams had scratches on his neck and face in the days after the murder, although no biological evidence was recovered from beneath Gayle’s fingernails. When Asaro balked at testifying, the prosecutors threatened to charge her with obstruction. Later, Asaro told a neighbor that she also had been paid for her testimony against Williams. 

There were many holes and discrepancies in Asaro’s testimony that should have discredited her, including: 

+ Asaro said Williams told her he entered the house through the back door, but the windowpane of the front door had been broken, giving access to the door’s deadbolt.

+ Asaro said Williams claimed he’d rinsed the knife in the bathroom after he stabbed Ms. Gayle, but the knife was not cleaned and was left lodged in the victim’s neck.

+ Asaro said Williams told her that Gayle was wearing a bathrobe when he murdered her, but she was wearing only a purple shirt.

+ Asaro claimed Williams told her that he had to hide after he murdered Gayle because a neighbor stopped by the house. However, police interviewed neighbors as part of their investigation, and no one said that they had gone to the Picus-Gayle house that day.

+ Asaro told police that she had informed her mother about Williams’ alleged confession, but when the police interviewed Asaro’s mother she said she knew nothing about it.

The only other evidence against Williams was the testimony of Glenn Roberts who said he’d bought an old Apple laptop from Williams for $150 or $200 a few days after the robbery, although the jury didn’t hear that Willaims told the Roberts he’d gotten the laptop from Lara Asaro, which investigators later said made her the person with the most obvious connection to the Gayle murder. 

As for what would turn out to be the key evidence in the case, the trace DNA found on the murder weapon, the trial judge refused a request from Williams’ defense team to have the DNA tested and compared to a sample from the defendant.

There was one other factor that may have tipped the scales against Williams: Felicia Gayle was a white woman; Williams was a black man.

So on the flimsy testimony of two paid informants with extensive criminal histories and incentives to lie, Marcellus Williams was convicted of murder and armed robbery by a jury of 11 whites and one Black person and sentenced to death–no surprise in a county, where when the victim is white and the defendant black, the black defendant is 3.5 times more likely to receive the death penalty.

The prosecutors in Williams’ case, who have been involved in at least two other wrongful convictions in death penalty cases, padded the likelihood of conviction by aggressively excluding blacks from the jury. During jury selection, the prosecution used 6 of its 9 peremptory challenges to exclude black jurors. In one instance, the prosecutor claimed he struck a black potential juror because he “looked very similar” to Williams. In another instance, the prosecutor said he rejected a black man for the jury because he worked for the Post Office and alleged that postal workers tend to be “very liberal.” He later approved a white post office employee for the jury. The jury deliberated for less than two hours (including lunch) before sentencing Williams to death.

Many studies have shown that jailhouse confessions are a leading cause of wrongful convictions in the US. A study by the Center on Wrongful Convictions shows that in death penalty cases nationally false testimony from jailhouse informants had taken place in 49.5 percent of trials leading to wrongful convictions since 1971. In Missouri, 11 of the 54 individuals exonerated in Missouri were convicted in trials that presented testimony from jailhouse informants. Williams’ underfunded trial lawyers didn’t help his case by failing to call witnesses to impeach the credibility of Asaro and Cole, despite the gaping holes and contradictions in their testimony.


Four years passed before the Missouri Supreme Court intervened. The court placed a stay on Williams’ execution and ordered a special master to supervise the testing of the DNA evidence found on the butcher knife that killed Felicia Gayle. In 2015, the DNA testing report concluded that Marcellus Williams was not the source of the male DNA found on the kitchen knife. Three different DNA experts concurred in this assessment. 

“Since a kitchen knife is often washed or cleaned, it is likely that the last one to use it may leave DNA,”  said Greg Hampikian, a DNA expert from Boise State University who conducted the DNA review along with two other scientists. “In this brutal attack …the repeated force and friction likely caused transfer from perpetrator’s hand to handle, especially since a struggle was indicated.”

The special master sent his findings to the Missouri Supreme Court, which promptly ignored them and set a new date for Williams’ execution without even holding a single hearing on the evidence that excluded Williams as the killer of Felicia Gayle.

By this point, Marcellus Williams had served 16 years on death row. He had always maintained his innocence. Even in these fraught circumstances, Williams had proved an exemplary prisoner.  His disciplinary record was nearly spotless. He devoted himself to the study of Islam. He’d become a spiritual advisor and Iman to other inmates on death row. The man whose fellow inmates called Khalifah (“leader) began writing poetry and trying to mentally reconcile himself with the possibility that he might be put to death for a vicious murder the state had proof that someone else committed.

Months went by and still no court would consent to hear an appeal based on the DNA evidence that proved his innocence. On the night of August 27, 2017, Marcellus Williams had already eaten his last meal, said his final goodbye to his son Marcellus Jr., and was awaiting transport to the death chamber, when news came that then Missouri Governor Eric Greitens had stayed his execution and convened a special board of inquiry to investigate the circumstances around Williams’ conviction, including the new DNA evidence, and issue a report to the governor. The board of inquiry was composed of five retired Missouri judges, who were charged with “assessing the credibility and weight of all evidence” in the case and making a recommendation “as to whether or not Williams should be executed or his sentence of death commuted.” 

As a rule, things move slowly in Missouri, and they moved even more glacially during the pandemic. Years went by with little word from the board of inquiry. Williams remained confined to death row, but under Missouri law, the stay of execution was to remain in place until the board had completed its review and sent its conclusions to the governor’s office. 

This isn’t what happened. In 2018, Gov. Eric Greitens resigned and was replaced by his rightwing Lieutenant Governor Mike Parsons. Parson, a former sheriff, was then elected to a full term in 2020. Under his tenure as governor, Parsons has signed a bill criminalizing abortion after 8 weeks of pregnancy, outlawed mail-in voting, opposed the expansion of Medicaid, ordered violent police crackdowns on BLM protests and, last June, terminated the board of inquiry into the conviction of Marcellus Williams without any notice or legal justification. 

“This Board was established nearly six years ago, and it is time to move forward,” Parson said in a statement. “We could stall and delay for another six years, deferring justice, leaving a victim’s family in limbo, and solving nothing. This administration won’t do that.”

Williams’ attorneys at the Midwest Innocence Project filed suit, charging that the disbanding of the board before it had issued its report violated Missouri state law and their client’s constitutional rights. When the Cole County Court sided with Williams, the Governor demanded that the Missouri Supreme Court take up the case. On June 4, 2024, the Court handed down its ruling dismissing Williams’ lawsuit and affirming the Governor’s right to dissolve the board of inquiry. The court swiftly rescheduled Williams’ execution date for September 24, 2024.

The fact that Marcellus Williams is innocent of the murder of Felicia Gayle doesn’t count for much with many Missouri politicians, prosecutors and judges. Consider that Governor Parsons has denied clemency requests from two other black men wrongly convicted of murders: Keith Strickland and Lamar Johnson. Strickland had been falsely imprisoned since 1978, convicted by an all-white jury of a triple murder that his own prosecutor (along with several judges and Missouri state legislators) says he didn’t commit. Parsons said Strickland’s case wasn’t “a priority.”

Parson also refused a clemency request from Lamar Johnson, who was convicted on the testimony of a single eyewitness, even though a conviction integrity unit reported that it had found “overwhelming evidence” of his innocence. (Both men were later exonerated.) Parsons, did, however, find time to issue a pardon for Mark and Patricia McCloskey, the white couple who pointed weapons at BLM protesters as they marched down the sidewalk in front of the McCloskey’s St. Louis mansion.

Consider also that the Missouri Attorney General’s office refuses to consider DNA evidence as exculpatory in cases where a death sentence has already been imposed. Clinging to Antonin Scalia’s depraved opinion that evidence of innocence isn’t enough to overturn a legal conviction, the State of Missouri has repeatedly argued that evidence of innocence isn’t a justification for stopping an execution. The state’s position, which it still holds, was made explicit in the 2003 case of Joseph Armine, a black man wrongfully convicted based on jailhouse testimony of killing another inmate in the recreation room of the Jefferson City Correctional Center. Even though the witnesses against him recanted their testimony, the state of Missouri argued before the Supreme Court that Armine should still be executed because his arguments had failed in the lower courts, which had refused to consider the recantations. This prompted Supreme Court Justice Laura Denvir Stith to ask Assistant Attorney General Frank Jung, “Are you suggesting … even if we find that Mr. Armine is actually innocent, he should be executed?”

“That is correct, your honor,” Jung replied.

Fortunately, the court ruled 4-3 in Joseph Amrine’s favor and his conviction was overturned. But not before Amrine had spent nearly a third of his life behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit.


Ironically, Williams’ last shot at freedom may reside in the hands of a prosecutor. In January, St. Louis DA Wesley Bell filed a brief with the St. Louis County Criminal Court asking that Williams’ conviction be vacated because the exculpatory DNA evidence “when paired with the relative paucity of other, credible evidence supporting guilt … casts inexorable doubt on Mr. Williams’s conviction and sentence.” 

To intervene in the case, Bell turned to a Missouri law enacted in 2021 that authorizes prosecutors to seek to overturn convictions “at any time if he or she has information that the convicted person may be innocent or may have been erroneously convicted.”

Bell’s office asked the Missouri Supreme Court and the State Attorney General’s office to hold off on setting an execution date while the St. Louis County Circuit Court considers Bell’s motion. They ignored him and set Williams’s execution for September 24. According to the Innocence Project, “the Missouri Attorney General’s Office has opposed every innocence case for the last 30 years, including every attempt made by a local prosecutor to overturn a conviction on the basis of innocence.”

The former prosecutor in Williams’s case also shrugged off the DNA evidence, telling CBS News: “There’s no chance he’s innocent.” In our degraded criminal justice system, finality supersedes truth and verdicts trump evidence of innocence.

A hearing on Bell’s motion by the court in St. Louis is expected sometime in mid-July. 

Until then, Marcellus Williams (and the rest of us)  is left to contemplate the question asked by DNA scientist Greg Hampikian: “How innocent do you have to be to avoid being executed?”

Sign this petition supporting the exoneration of Marcellus Williams.

Correction: Governor Parson refused to expand Medicaid not Medicare.

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book is An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents (with Alexander Cockburn). He can be reached at: or on Twitter @JeffreyStClair3