Think Innocent People Are Never Wrongly Convicted?

Last week, on the day Marcellus Williams was scheduled to die Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens stayed his execution. (Photo: Missouri Department of Corrections)

Think Innocent People Are Never Wrongly Convicted?

Think again—then ask Marcellus Williams.

Last week, on the day he was scheduled to die, Marcellus Williams didn't.

Just hours before he was to be strapped down and pumped full of poison, Williams, the convicted killer of Felicia "Lisha" Gayle, a former reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, received a reprieve. Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens stayed the execution and announced formation of a panel to review the case.

To be sure, no one will ever mistake Williams for a choir boy. At the time he was charged with Gayle's 1998 murder, he was a 29-year-old with a rap sheet including convictions for burglary. He was also a suspect in an armed robbery at a fast food restaurant, a crime of which he was later convicted.

Whatever his other sins, though, there's reason to believe Williams may not, in fact, have been the person who stabbed Gayle 43 times during a burglary. Yes, two witnesses--a jailhouse snitch and a woman Williams had dated--both came forward after a $10,000 reward was posted and claimed he had confessed to them. And granted, a piece of the victim's property was found in Williams' car and the girlfriend led police to a laptop computer belonging to Gayle's husband. She said Williams had bartered it for drugs.

On the other hand, no forensic evidence places Williams at the murder scene. Kent Gipson, an attorney for Williams, has told reporters that hair fibers and bloody footprints found in Gayle's home did not match his client and bloody fingerprints found there were lost by police and never tested.

As if all that were not enough, there's this: in 2015, the Missouri Supreme Court stayed an earlier execution date after Williams' attorney pleaded for time to conduct DNA testing. The results of that testing showed that genetic material found on the murder weapon did not come from Williams. And yet this month, faced with that actual evidence of actual innocence, the same court said the execution could now proceed.

Truly, the mind boggles.

So the fact that Marcellus Williams didn't die last week can be chalked up, not to justice, but to that most transient and fickle of factors, political courage. And make no mistake, Gov. Greitens' decision to block the execution took some moral fortitude, especially given that he's a Republican and "tough on crime" is the party's mantra.

But it should never have come to this. A man's life should never have hung in this balance.

It is human nature that human beings loath to admit their mistakes. It is also human nature that human beings will make mistakes, regardless.

One of the most grievous flaws of capital punishment is that it requires us to pretend those two things are not true. Which is why the court's refusal to stop Williams' execution is less suggestive of reasoned jurisprudence than of a refusal to look too closely for fear of what one might see.

That's a common affliction where capital punishment is concerned. As a nation, we avert our eyes and thoughts from a system that is racially, religiously, geographically, gender, and class biased, a system that pretends witnesses never lie, prosecutors never cheat, and public defenders are never overwhelmed, a system predicated on a capacity for perfection human beings have never exhibited and never will.

We avert our eyes from all this and call capricious death justice. But it is really just capricious death and it will never be anything more. That is the sobering truth of the day Marcellus Williams was scheduled to die and didn't.

It's also the truth of that coming day when someone else is scheduled to die, and does.

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