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Pending Execution: Did Marcellus Williams Kill Lisha Gayle?


            On August 11th, 1998, Dr. Daniel Picus returned to his University City home, a suburb of St. Louis, to discover the body of his wife. Felicia “Lisha” Gayle was found stabbed at least ten times in her Missouri home. Lisha, a former crime reporter for the St. Louis Post Dispatch, had dedicated her time to helping others through tutoring and promoting social justice. It was unclear who would murder the forty-two-year-old, but the motive appeared to be robbery. The man convicted of the crime is set to be executed September 24th, 2024. However, there are questions about his guilt and concerns that the State of Missouri is planning to execute an innocent man. Did Marcellus Williams kill Lisha Gayle?



            Felicia “Lisha” Gayle was born February 6th, 1956, in Rockford, Illinois. She was the daughter of Wally and Veronica Gayle. She had seven brothers and sisters. When she was just in elementary school, Lisha met Daniel Picus. The two began dating in high school and married on September 21st, 1979. Lisha studied journalism at the University of Illinois, graduating with her degree. Lisha and Daniel, who had become a radiologist, moved to St. Louis where Dr. Picus headed up the radiology department Barnes-Jewish Hospital. The two settled in a gated subdivision in University City, Missouri. Lisha was a woman of small stature, five foot one inches, with hair that fell to her waist.

            In 1981, Lisha started working as a crime reporter for the St. Louis Post Dispatch. She continued in this role until 1992. One source reported that she took some time off, but upon learning that another person would lose their temporary position when she returned, she chose to retire and allow the other person to continue in their role. She was known to be kind and generous. She often tutored disadvantaged youth, becoming particularly close to three sisters that she tutored and mentored. She was also a champion for environmental causes, starting the recycling program at the St. Louis Post Dispatch.

             At 7:50 pm on the night of August 11th, 1998, police received notice that man had called 911 to report finding his wife dead upon returning home from work. Detective Dorothy Dunn responded to the upscale Ames Place neighborhood. Dr. Picus had found his wife deceased at the landing of the stairs, just inside the front door of the home. A tree blocked the view of the front door from the street, possibly shielding the intruder from view. The window near the front door had been broken and the front door unlatched.

            It appeared that burglary may have been the primary motive for the crime. There had been three other burglaries in the neighborhood that summer, something residents were not informed of prior to the murder. The broken window supported the theory as well as a few missing items including Dr. Picus’s laptop computer. Investigators soon theorized that Lisha had been showering following her morning jog. The intruder broke in, heard the shower, and obtained a knife from the victim’s kitchen. It is believed that the intruder ambushed the woman as she came down the stairs.

            There were no immediate suspects in the crime, but journalists and law enforcement compared the crime to other open murders in the St. Louis area including that of Angie Houseman and Debra McClain. Angie Houseman was kidnapped when she stepped off the bus in St. Ann, Missouri, in 1993. The case remained unsolved for decades before DNA evidence linked Earl Cox to the crime. He later confessed to kidnapping, sexually assaulting, and murdering the nine-year-old girl. There are very few similarities to the murder of Lisha Gayle.

            Debra McClain was born July 9th, 1958, in Illinois. She had graduated from Central Community High School in Breese, Illinois, in the 1970s. She married Jack McClain, who worked as a handyman. Debra lived just three miles from Lisha Gayle and was murdered in a very similar fashion less than a month before Lisha, on July 18th, 1998. There were several similarities in the cases other than their geographic location. In both cases, a knife from the victim’s home was used and left at the scene, the victim was a woman in her early forties, both women were small in stature, and each sustained more than twenty stab wounds. Both women were found in the evening when their husband’s returned home from work.

            Debra McClain’s mother stated that she last saw her daughter at a family reunion shortly before the murder. She said her daughter had lost twenty pounds and did not seem well. She told her mother she was scared. She had bruises on her. Following her funeral services, her husband Jack indicated that both he and the police knew who the murderer was, but there was not enough evidence to bring charges. While the Walgreens clerk’s murder seemed very similar to that of Lisha Gayle, Debra McClain was not wealthy, and her home showed no signs of forced entry. As far as I can tell from my research, no one has ever been charged with Debra McClain’s murder. In both cases, investigators ruled out the victim’s husband as the perpetrator.

            In May of 1999, investigators offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrests of the person or persons who killed Lisha Gayle. They reported that they had suspects but lacked evidence to bring charges. In November of that year, it was announced that a suspect was already in custody, twenty-nine-year-old Marcellus Williams. Marcellus was currently in custody facing charges related to a burglary that occurred twenty days after Lisha Gayle’s murder. Police credited the breakthrough in the case to the reward money, which inspired an ex-girlfriend of Marcellus Williams and a cousin to come forward.

            The former girlfriend testified that Marcellus had been wearing a jacket on the August 1998 day, which was unusual given the heat. A jacket was missing from the Gayle-Picus home. It is believed he put a jacket on to conceal the blood. She also testified that she saw items from Ms. Gayle’s home in her boyfriend, Marcellus Williams, vehicle. She gave information about the laptop and where police could find it. Police recovered the laptop from a person who testified that Marcellus Williams had sold it to him shortly after the murder for crack cocaine. Inside the vehicle, a St. Louis Post Dispatch Ruler was found in the glove box which belonged to Lisha Gayle.

            In addition to his former girlfriend, prisoner Henry Cole also came forward claiming that Marcellus Williams had told him details of the crime that only the perpetrator would know. Marcellus was already in custody for a robbery of a Burger King a month before the murder and a robbery of a doughnut shop a month after the murder. He was later given thirty years for one robbery and twenty years for the other. He was already sentenced to fifty years in prison before the murder charges were brought. In both cases, Marcellus used a gun to commit the crimes.

            In 2001, Marcellus Williams went on trial for the murder of Lisha Gayle. Prosecutor Bob McCullough led the fight to convict Williams of capital murder. The defendant’s ex-girlfriend testified against him. The defense pointed out that she was getting paid (the reward) for her testimony, had a history of perjury, and was a known crack cocaine abuser and prostitute. The defense sought to poke holes in her credibility. She testified that Marcellus had scratch marks on him after the murder. The defense countered, however, with DNA expert Jami Harman, who testified that no DNA evidence was found under Lisha’s nails. This would be unlikely if she had scratched the defendant.

            Henry Cole, the jailhouse informant, also testified against Marcellus. He testified that Marcellus gave him details of the crime that had not been made public. He did not know or have any connection to Williams’ ex-girlfriend. The defense pointed out that the testimony by both witnesses did not match the crime scene, citing the lack of DNA under the victim’s nails. The defense also had a forensic consultant testify that bloody footprints found at the scene did not match Marcellus Williams’ shoes that were seized by police.

            The prosecution fought back, claiming that details were given to them by Marcellus’s previous girlfriend and Henry Cole that were not publicized including the fact that the knife was left in the victim’s neck, the location of the body, and the fact that her purse had been taken. Additionally, they claimed that Ms. Gayle’s nails were blunt and only inflicted minor scratch wounds, so it was not concerning that no DNA was found under her nails. Furthermore, his ex-girlfriend testified that the clothing and shoes that Marcellus had been wearing during the crime had been disposed of.

            On June 16th, 2001, Marcellus Williams was convicted of first-degree murder in the case of Felicia Gayle. The prosecutor stated, “He never would have got caught if he wasn’t a bragger”. He cited Williams’ confessions to his ex-girlfriend and Henry Cole. The state announced it was seeking the death penalty against Williams, who was already serving fifty years for two separate robberies he committed at gunpoint around the same time as the murder.

            On June 17th, 2001, Lisha Gayle’s family and friends provided testimony about Lisha for the penalty phase of the trial. They told of her charitable acts, giving spirit, and how she was a phenomenal tutor and mentor to disadvantaged youth. Additionally, the prosecution called the Burger King employee who had been forced to open the safe at gunpoint just seventeen days before the murder. He identified Marcellus Williams as the man who robbed the store. An employee of the doughnut shop also testified that she was robbed by Williams at gunpoint twenty days after the murder. Williams had been caught after robbing the doughnut shop with a gun, cash, and two doughnuts in his duffle bag.

            Marcellus Williams was sentenced to death for the murder of Lisha Gayle on August 27th, 2001. The defense appealed on grounds that the jury selection process had not been appropriate, resulting in eleven white jurors and only one black juror. Additionally, the trial court did not allow some evidence to be DNA tested. The defense also insisted that the two witnesses that testified were incentivized to do so by the reward money and leniency for their own criminal charges.

            Marcellus Williams exhausted his appeals and was scheduled to be executed in 2015. His defense made the plea to test evidence found at the scene for DNA, which the court granted, delaying his execution. DNA on the murder weapon was found to belong to an unknown male source. One expert said the results of the DNA testing was inconclusive, but another stated that there is no possibility that the DNA belonged to Marcellus Williams. Despite this evidence, Marcellus Williams was scheduled to be executed August 22nd, 2017.

            Just hours before his execution, Governor Eric Greitens issued a last-minute stay of execution on the grounds that the DNA evidence had not been properly presented to a court of law. Governor Greitens initiated a Board of Inquiry to examine the DNA evidence in the case. Five retired federal judges were assigned to review the evidence and provide a report to the Governor’s office of Missouri. The board held hearings in 2018, but as of 2023 had not reached a conclusion and was still reviewing evidence.

            When the 2017 execution was stayed, Dr. Picus’s new wife editorialized a piece for the St. Louis Post Dispatch. She explains how the constant legal limbo was torture for those who loved Lisha Gayle. “I would like to offer another point of view: that of a family whose wound is being exposed and expounded upon once again. Amid the breathless coverage, it’s easy to forget that for the families of victims this is not about beliefs, no matter how intensely held, or sound bites recited and repeated across the media landscape. For them, it’s deeply and painfully personal”. She continued to state that while Mr. Williams’ sentence is part of a troubling racial disparity in the death penalty, the court system including a jury of his peers found him guilty and sentenced him to death. Several appellate courts upheld the verdict and sentence.

            In June of 2023, Missouri Governor Mike Parsons lifted the stay of execution for Marcellus Williams and disbanded the board despite their lack of conclusion. He cited that the family of the victim had waited long enough for justice and that the board had almost six years to reach a conclusion and had not. Many felt this was unfair due to the DNA evidence and that he should have waited until the board reached a conclusion. Marcellus Williams is suing the Governor over this issue, a case that is still pending.

            On January 26th, 2024, prosecutor Wesely Bell filed a motion in the St. Louis County Circuit Court asking a judge to vacate Marcellus William’s conviction. He cited the DNA evidence and unreliability of witnesses as grounds for reasonable doubt. He also cited ineffective assistance of counseling and racial discrimination in the choosing of the trial jury. Although this petition is still pending, on June 4th, 2024, the State of Missouri set an execution date for Marcellus Williams for September 24th, 2024.

            Several organizations including the Midwest Innocence Project, St. Louis County Prosecutor’s Office, and NAACP had backed Williams, calling for his conviction to be overturned and that he be granted freedom. We must not forget, however, that Mr. Williams was already serving fifty years for two armed robberies. He has only served twenty-five years of the fifty, so the claims that he is incarcerated inappropriately is untrue. However, the effort to spare his life may be appropriate as a court has never reviewed the DNA evidence on the knife. Former prosecutor Bob McCullough has stated that evidence including the victim’s belongings implicated Williams and that the DNA on the knife was touch DNA- a sample too small to exclude anyone.

            Should the State of Missouri proceed with the execution of Marcellus Williams? I have several thoughts. First, how did Williams sell the computer belonging to Mr. Picus if he was not the one who committed the robbery and murder? Williams has suggested that his ex-girlfriend, who testified against him with unpublished details of the crime, may have been involved. I am assuming the DNA was compared to her husband, who may have left DNA on the knife as it belonged to Mr. and Mrs. Picus. If the DNA did not belong to the owner or the defendant, then perhaps someone else was responsible for or at least involved in the crime.

            In the two robbery cases, Mr. William’s held the businesses up by gunpoint. While he has a history of robberies in the area of the crime, why wouldn’t he have used his gun instead of the knife to commit the murder? How did Henry Cole, the jailhouse informant, know specific details of the crime if he did not know the other witness or the defendant prior to being in jail with the defendant? I certainly think that the two witnesses were incentivized and probably not the most reliable.

            I honestly do not know if I believe that Marcellus Williams is guilty of killing Lisha Gayle. He belongs in jail for his other crimes, regardless, so the idea that a man is in prison and is innocent is absurd. However, I do not think he should be on death row when there is so much reasonable doubt. I hope that the State of Missouri reviews this case prior to September 24th.  “The law holds that it is better that 10 guilty persons escape than one innocent suffer”- 1769 Doctrine by William Blackstone. What do you think?

 



           

 

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Sounds like to me her husband killed her or was involved... If she wasn't feel well and lost pounds and was scared why wasn't her husband in question? They should have questioned him more. Was he really at work the day this happened,? How come others noticed she was "different" but not her husband .. you don't think maybe her husband forced her to retire

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It was the similar murder nearby in which she had lost weight and stated she was scared. The husband in Gayle’s case and the other have both been ruled out.

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