Felicia Anne Gayle Picus was found dead in her home, the victim of a vicious murder that devastated her family and rattled her neighbors in the gated community of University City, Missouri, just outside St. Louis. Police suspected a burglary gone wrong. The scene was replete with forensic evidence: There were bloody footprints and fingerprints, and the murder weapon — a kitchen knife used to stab Picus — was left lodged in her neck.
That detail caught the medical examiner’s attention. Weeks earlier, another woman had been stabbed to death just a couple of miles away, and the weapon was left in the victim’s body. Days after Picus’s murder, the University City police chief told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that investigators had identified a “prime suspect,” someone they said had been spotted in the area “in recent weeks,” whom they believed had killed before.
But whatever became of that lead is unclear. After Picus’s family posted a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of her killer, a jailhouse informant named Henry Cole came forward with a story about how his former cellmate, Marcellus Williams, had confessed to murdering Picus. Soon, police secured a second informant: Laura Asaro, Williams’s former girlfriend, also told the cops that Williams was responsible for the killing. There were reasons to be wary of their stories. Both informants were facing prison time for unrelated crimes and stood to benefit. Many of the details they offered shifted over the course of questioning, while others did not match the crime. Nonetheless, Williams was charged with Picus’s murder, convicted, and sentenced to death.
Questions about the investigation and Williams’s guilt have only mounted in the years since the August 1998 crime. DNA testing on the murder weapon done years after his conviction revealed a partial male profile that could not have come from Williams. On the eve of Williams’s scheduled execution in 2017, then-Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens intervened. He issued an executive order that triggered a rarely used provision of Missouri law, empaneling a board to review the evidence, including DNA, that jurors never heard about at trial.
While that review was ongoing for most of the last six years, the board never submitted a final report or recommendation to the governor, as the law requires. Instead, last June, Gov. Mike Parson announced that he was rescinding his predecessor’s order, effectively dissolving the panel that had been reinvestigating the case.
The question now is whether Missouri law allows the governor to simply disappear an ongoing investigation. Because the law has so rarely been used, its contours have never been fully litigated, prompting the Midwest Innocence Project, which represents Williams, to file a civil lawsuit seeking to invalidate Parson’s order. The state’s attorney general balked, arguing that Williams was trying to usurp the governor’s independent clemency powers. The AG has asked the Missouri Supreme Court to toss the lawsuit — and clear the way for Williams’s execution.
Picus spent a decade as a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, including on the crime beat, before leaving to focus on philanthropic endeavors. She was an ardent environmentalist and feminist: She persuaded the newspaper to adopt its first recycling program, and a former colleague recalled how she’d advocated for using the term “personhole” instead of “manhole” in stories.
Diminutive in stature with long hair and a reported fondness for Birkenstocks, Picus was also a dedicated friend. She wrote hundreds of birthday and holiday cards each year — the day she was killed, she had more than 30 handmade cards ready to mail. “She was like a central switching system on the telephone company of life,” a childhood friend and fellow journalist wrote in the Chicago Tribune.
The Post-Dispatch covered the search for Picus’s killer as the months without an arrest wore on, publishing a detailed list of items police said had been stolen from her home, among them an old Apple laptop belonging to Picus’s husband, Dan. But it wasn’t until the $10,000 reward was posted that police secured statements from the informants, Cole and Asaro, claiming that Williams had confessed to the murder. Although the reward was supposed to be paid upon conviction, prosecutors encouraged Dan to pay Cole $5,000 upfront when it appeared that his cooperation might be flagging.
Cole and Asaro were the backbone of the prosecution’s case at Williams’s trial in the summer of 2001. The state painted a harrowing picture of the attack on Picus and cast Williams as a ruthless killer. There was no physical evidence, however, to back up the informants’ claims. Asaro claimed that Williams had scratches on his face the day of the murder, yet no foreign DNA was recovered from under Picus’s fingernails. Cole said Williams’s clothes were bloody and that he’d stolen a shirt to cover the stains when he left Picus’s house, yet no clothes were missing from the home. Bloody shoeprints found at the scene were a different size than Williams’s feet. Fingerprints lifted by investigators were deemed unusable by the state and then destroyed before the defense had a chance to analyze them.
There was, however, the Apple laptop, which police ultimately recovered. According to Asaro, Williams gave his grandfather’s neighbor the computer in exchange for crack cocaine. At trial, the man denied that account. He’d paid Williams for the laptop, he said. Williams told him that he’d gotten the computer from Asaro and was selling it for her. Prosecutors objected to this testimony, so the jury never heard it. Asaro and the man who received the computer have since died.
Like Cole and Asaro, Williams had a rap sheet. He’d been sentenced to decades in prison for robbery and burglary by the time of the murder trial. According to the Post-Dispatch, the jury deliberated for less than 90 minutes, “including lunch,” before deciding that Williams should be sentenced to die for Picus’s murder.
Attorneys for Williams sought to conduct DNA testing prior to his trial, but the circuit court judge refused. It wasn’t until 2015 that Williams was granted permission to test the murder weapon, which revealed a male DNA profile that did not match Williams. Nonetheless, the Missouri Supreme Court dismissed the new evidence and set Williams’s execution for August 22, 2017.
The Midwest Innocence Project turned to Greitens, asking that he halt the execution and convene a board of inquiry to investigate the case. On the day Williams was set to die, Greitens issued an executive order granting the request.
A five-member board would be set up to “assess the credibility and weight of all evidence” in the case, Greitens’s order read. The board was given subpoena power and tasked with keeping the information it collected in “strict confidence.” The order required the board to make a final report and recommendation to the governor “as to whether or not Williams should be executed or his sentence of death commuted.”
Greitens appointed five retired judges to the investigation, and they got to work. In the years that followed, the Midwest Innocence Project provided the board with a host of information and suggestions for lines of inquiry — continuing well after Greitens resigned amid a swirl of controversies the following year and Parson assumed office.
That is until Parson issued his own executive order on June 29, 2023, rescinding Greitens’s order. While Parson acknowledged that his predecessor had required a report from the board of inquiry regarding its investigation, the governor made no mention of any findings.
“This board was established nearly six years ago, and it is time to move forward,” he said. “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.”
In 1963, the Missouri legislature passed several criminal justice reforms, including one aimed at avoiding wrongful executions. The state’s constitution already empowered the governor to grant reprieves, commutations, and pardons, but lawmakers added new authorities, allowing the governor, “in his discretion,” to appoint a board of inquiry tasked with gathering information bearing on whether a person “condemned to death” should in fact be executed. Lawmakers set several specific parameters, including that the board “shall” issue a final report. The law passed that summer and has never been amended.
Although it has been on the books for 60 years, the provision has only been invoked three times, including in the Marcellus Williams case. In 1997, then-Gov. Mel Carnahan stayed the execution of William Boliek, who had been sentenced to die for murdering a witness to a robbery in Kansas City, and ordered a board of inquiry to look into the case. The board submitted its report to Carnahan, but the governor did not act on it before he was killed in a plane crash — meaning the case was never resolved. The Missouri Supreme Court subsequently ruled that Carnahan was the only one who could lift the stay, meaning Boliek could never be executed. He remains on Missouri’s death row.
In an August 2023 civil lawsuit filed in Cole County, where the state capital is located, the Midwest Innocence Project drew on this history to argue that Parson had violated the law by dissolving Greitens’s board before it had fulfilled its statutory duty to provide a report and recommendation in Williams’s case.
Once the statute was triggered, the governor was bound to uphold its provisions. Parson’s order prematurely dissolving the board exceeded the power granted to his office by the legislature some 60 years ago, the lawyers argued. “All Mr. Williams is asking is for the board of inquiry to be able to complete its work and issue a report and recommendation, ensuring that at least one government entity finally hears all the evidence of his innocence,” said Tricia Rojo Bushnell, the Midwest Innocence Project’s executive director. Once the process is complete, Parson can do what he wants, she added. “But until that time, Mr. Williams has a right to this process that was started by Gov. Greitens precisely out of the concern that Missouri may execute an innocent person.”
Attorney General Andrew Bailey sought to have the lawsuit dismissed outright, but in November, Circuit Court Judge S. Cotton Walker concluded that it should proceed. The statute didn’t expressly give Parson the authority to dissolve the board, and Williams had an interest in the process playing out according to the law, he wrote. “There is a fundamental difference between the governor’s authority to appoint a board in his discretion and the board’s ongoing existence being discretionary.”
Bailey appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court, arguing that the circuit court couldn’t tell the governor what to do in matters of clemency. Since the board of inquiry statute references the governor’s constitutional powers over clemency, Bailey argued, interfering with his ability to dissolve the board was the same as interfering with his clemency powers. Williams was trying to use the court to “hijack” Parson’s authority, he wrote.
The Midwest Innocence Project argued that Bailey’s position was a red herring: Williams was not looking to interfere with Parson’s authority on matters of clemency; he was merely asking that the governor be required to follow the statute in his decision-making. To find otherwise would be violating the separation of powers in the other direction: allowing the governor to rewrite a decades-old act of the legislature. The governor’s position, the lawyers wrote, “has it backward.”
“The governor’s clemency power exists for the public good, not his own,” the defense brief reads. “As a result, a board of inquiry serves the public, not the governor, and that board ‘shall’ make a report and recommendation for the governor’s consideration before he makes a final clemency decision.”
There is no timeline for the Missouri Supreme Court to rule.
Meanwhile, the Conviction and Incident Review Unit at the St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office has also reached out to the court, asking that it refrain from setting a date for Williams’s execution for “an initial period of six months.” The office has also been investigating Williams’s case and needs more time to decide whether it will seek to vacate his sentence on its own — a power granted to state prosecutors under a newer, but also rarely used, Missouri law.
Marcellus Williams remains grateful to Greitens for staying his execution and invoking the board of inquiry statute. He told the Kansas City Star that he grew up “basically like a typical misguided” youth, bouncing in and out of juvenile detention. He had just started serving a 20-year sentence for robbing a doughnut shop when he was charged with Picus’s killing. He knew he hadn’t done it and said that despite his experience with the criminal justice system, he thought the mistake would be discovered and corrected. “You still have this naivete right there that you’re not really recognizing who you’re up against.”