By Naomi LaChance, TYT Politics
The Missouri prosecutor in a death-penalty case that drew national attention Tuesday when the execution was stayed by the governor is the same prosecutor who received public scrutiny ― and criticism ― for his failure to indict the police officer who shot unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson.
Gov. Eric Greitens (R-MO) stayed the execution of Marcellus Williams just four hours before he was set to be executed and appointed a board of inquiry to look at new evidence in the case. The prosecutor, Bill McCulloch, maintains that Williams is guilty.
New DNA evidence suggests Williams’ innocence in the 1998 murder for which he was convicted, but McCulloch says he remains certain that Williams committed the crime. McCulloch was previously accused of mishandling the Ferguson case, in which a grand jury decided not to indict Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot Michael Brown.
Prosecutors like McCulloch are receiving increased scrutiny for their role in mass incarceration, wrongful convictions and police misconduct.
Williams was convicted of murdering a former newspaper reporter, Felicia Gayle, during a burglary at her home. His attorneys say that the new evidence exonerates him; new technology, they say, allowed them to show someone else’s DNA on the weapon.
Hair samples and a footprint found at the crime scene do not match Williams’, according to his lawyers. There were no eyewitness accounts directly connecting him to the murder.
“A sentence of death is the ultimate, permanent punishment,” Greitens said, according to a statement from his office. “To carry out the death penalty, the people of Missouri must have confidence in the judgment of guilt.”
The state’s high court refused to consider the new evidence. And others remain sure of Williams’ guilt.
“We remain confident in the judgment of the jury and the many courts that have carefully reviewed Mr. Williams’s case over 16 years,” said Loree Anne Paradise, a deputy chief of staff for Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley.
Referring to circumstantial evidence including the discovery of some of Gayle’s belongings in Williams’ car, Paradise said, “Based on the other, non-DNA evidence in this case, our office is confident in Marcellus Williams’s guilt and plans to move forward.”
“He is the one who committed this murder,” McCulloch, the prosecutor, told the Guardian. “He made his decision 20 years ago to stay in that house. He heard Lisha Gayle walk down the stairs, and all he had to do was leave. He didn’t. And now he has to live with that decision — die with that decision.”
The case was “marred by racial discrimination,” said Sam Spital, the director of litigation at the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense and Educational Fund. All but one of the jurors were white.
“It is frightening that someone can have exonerating DNA evidence and a court would turn a blind eye to it,” Williams’ lawyer, Kent Gipson, told Al Jazeera.
In 2014, Missouri executed Herbert Smulls, whose sentence for first-degree murder case was still being appealed. McCulloch was also the prosecutor in that case.
“It was a horrific crime,” McCulloch said. “With all the other arguments that the opponents of the death penalty are making, it’s simply to try to divert the attention from what this guy did, and why he deserves to be executed.”
McCulloch came under fire when a grand jury decided not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for the 2014 shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown. Critics said that McCulloch blundered the prosecution of Wilson.
“Robert McCulloch, who is widely viewed in the minority community as being in the pockets of the police, made matters infinitely worse by handling this sensitive investigation in the worst possible way,” the New York Times wrote in an editorial.
The editorial outlined various missteps in the prosecution:
First, [McCulloch] refused to step aside in favor of a special prosecutor who could have been appointed by Gov. Jay Nixon of Missouri. He further undermined public confidence by taking a highly unorthodox approach to the grand jury proceeding. Instead of conducting an investigation and then presenting the case and a recommendation of charges to the grand jury, his office shifted its job to the grand jury. It made no recommendation on whether to indict the officer, Darren Wilson, but left it to the jurors to wade through masses of evidence to determine whether there was probable cause to file charges against Officer Wilson for Mr. Brown’s killing.
Under ordinary circumstances, grand jury hearings can be concluded within days. The proceeding in this case lasted an astonishing three months. And since grand jury proceedings are held in secret, the drawn-out process fanned suspicions that Mr. McCulloch was deliberately carrying on a trial out of public view, for the express purpose of exonerating Officer Wilson.
If all this weren’t bad enough, Mr. McCulloch took a reckless approach to announcing the grand jury’s finding. After delaying the announcement all day, he finally made it late in the evening, when darkness had placed law enforcement agencies at a serious disadvantage as they tried to control the angry crowds that had been drawn into the streets by news that the verdict was coming. Mr. McCulloch’s announcement sounded more like a defense of Officer Wilson than a neutral summary of the facts that had led the grand jury to its conclusion.
The ACLU of Missouri represented a juror who sued to be able to speak out about serving on the Wilson grand jury. “In Plaintiff’s view, the current information available about the grand jurors’ views is not entirely accurate—especially the implication that all grand jurors believed that there was no support for any charges,” her lawsuit said.
She also said the prosecution presented evidence with a “stronger focus on the victim,” and “the insinuation that Michael Brown, not Wilson, was the wrongdoer.”
The Ethics Project, an advocacy group aimed at stopping wrongful prosecution, filed a bar complaint against McCulloch and his colleagues for their handling of the case.
McCulloch’s role in Ferguson fit into a bigger national critique of prosecutors who fail to see cases fairly; they enable police misconduct and contribute to mass incarceration, critics say.
Taylor Pendergrass wrote at Slate: “These two prosecutorial practices — ignoring bad policing and accepting far too many cases for criminal prosecution — foster the conditions that lead to racially biased, violent, and all too often deadly policing. These prosecutorial practices almost certainly have more impact on policing than the question of whether prosecutors bring criminal charges against a bad cop in any one individual case.”