On Aug. 22, not long before Marcellus Williams was due to be killed by the state of Missouri, Gov. Eric Greitens issued a stay of execution. The Williams conviction had been called into question by new DNA evidence that pointed to his likely innocence, and criminal justice reform activists had called for a delay in Williams’s death sentence so that a new investigation could be completed. Earlier in the day on Aug. 22, before the stay was issued, Libertarian National Committee Chair Nicholas Sarwark appeared on the Tom Sumner Program in Flint, Mich., to discuss death row inmate Marcellus Williams and the injustice of capital punishment.
“In the Williams case, there’s DNA evidence from the knife that was used in the homicide, from underneath the victim’s fingernails,” Sarwark said in his interview on the Tom Sumner Program. “It doesn’t match Mr. Williams. So you have at least an indication that there’s doubt that he was the person who attacked and killed this person. And the prosecutors like to point to other evidence that they say does indicate that he’s guilty. But, in this case, that other evidence is testimony from jailhouse snitches, often who get some sort of favor or better treatment for testifying against someone else. They have a motivation to, perhaps, make up a story.”
Although a previous stay of execution had been granted to Williams in 2015, to allow for new DNA testing, courts had refused to issue a second stay to allow a full investigation until the recent intervention by Gov. Greitens.
“In these cases, you would think that the court would at least give some sort of explanation, so you know why it is that they want to let an execution go forward,” Sarwark said in the interview. “In this case, they didn’t give any explanation whatsoever. They just denied the request to stay the execution long enough to test the evidence and see whether or not it merits a new trial or a commutation of the sentence.”
Sarwark, who spent five years working as a criminal defense attorney with the Colorado public defender’s office, pointed out that cases like this and countless others demonstrate why capital punishment is fundamentally unjust, because guilt is often uncertain.
“As more and more of these exonerations come out across the country, and there’s more doubt about whether or not the way the death penalty is administered in this country is just, you get things like Illinois putting a moratorium on all of their executions a few years back,” Sarwark said. “I think they don’t want us to look too hard at the fact that we may be executing innocent people in this country.”
The more that these cases of DNA exoneration can be made public, the more the general public may realize that the criminal justice system is far from infallible.
“One of the things that leads to support for capital punishment is this belief that our legal system is well-nigh infallible, that anyone who is sentenced to die at the hands of the state had the most fair trial possible and went through all the appeals possible, and that you can be sure that we’re not executing innocent people,” Sarwark said. “And, based on the exonerations that the Innocence Project has had over the years, and very doubtful cases like Cameron Todd Willingham down in Texas, it goes to show that that faith in our system is misplaced. We have evidence that the government has executed innocent people in this country, and I think that when you get that kind of evidence, support for capital punishment goes down, because it’s not a mistake that can be fixed anymore. And it may be that part of the reason why prosecutors and the courts in the Williams case don’t want to go back and look at this evidence is, if it turns out that he’s innocent, that puts another hole in their argument that the capital punishment system in this country is working.”
Listen to the full the full interview with LNC Chair Nicholas Sarwark on the Tom Sumner Program, which is broadcast on 1470 WFNT in Flint, Mich. Sarwark’s remarks begin approximately 20 minutes into the broadcast.