Get Informed

Regular updates, analysis and context straight to your email

Close Newsletter Signup

St. Louis prosecutor’s support of death sentence angers minority community

St. Louis prosecutor’s support of death sentence angers minority community

The execution of Marcellus Williams has been indefinitely delayed, but anger at the actions of St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch are unlikely to dissipate anytime soon.

McCulloch has repeatedly said that Williams should be executed, despite newly discovered evidence that he may not have been responsible for the 1998 murder of Felicia Gayle because his DNA wasn’t on the murder weapon and another man’s DNA was.

The NAACP’s St. Louis chapter and Missouri conference have condemned McCulloch, saying that he needs to do more to ensure equal justice for all races.

Williams was scheduled to die last month but Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens issued a stay of execution hours before the execution was scheduled to occur. A five-member board appointed by Greitens will now review the case.

But McCulloch remains convinced that Williams is guilty and should be executed, telling the Associated Press hours before Greitens stopped the execution that he has seen zero evidence that suggests Williams is innocent.

“I am confident that any board and the governor, after a full review of all evidence and information, will reach the same conclusion reached by the jury and the various courts,” McCulloch said in a written statement after the execution was delayed.

That insistence of guilt has frustrated many.

Nimrod Chapel Jr., head of the Missouri State Conference of the NAACP said McCulloch’s attitude is part of a pattern.

“It’s not all prosecutors, but there are those who we believe are not living up to their ethical obligations to seek justice,” Chapel said. “They’re merely looking for a conviction. We should make sure that the people who are paying the ultimate penalty are actually guilty before we ask them to pay that penalty.”

Kenny Murdoch, head of the St. Louis County chapter of the NAACP, praised Greitens for calling off the execution, but said McCulloch’s continuing defense of the death sentence has frustrated and scared the minority community.

“We applaud [Greiten], but then to be betrayed by a prosecutor, that brings fear back into the community,” Murdoch said. “We’re trying not only to ease racial tensions, we’re trying to give hope that this community can stay together.”

McCulloch has also been critical of the DNA evidence. Williams’s lawyers have said that an independent DNA analysis of the knife that stabbed Gale 43 times shows the DNA of an unknown man, but no trace of Williams’s DNA.

But McCulloch dismissed that in an interview with 90.7, St. Louis Public Radio, saying that the DNA evidence was “not of sufficient quantity or quality to identify or exclude anyone.”

The national NAACP had previously called for McCulloch to be replaced after charges were not brought against Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown.

Organizers Call on Florida Gov. Scott to Rein in Polk County Sheriff

Organizers Call on Florida Gov. Scott to Rein in Polk County Sheriff

As residents of Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas prepare themselves for the destructive impact of Hurricane Irma over the weekend, one county sheriff has decided to the seize the opportunity to arrest more people. On Wednesday, Polk County, Florida Sheriff Grady Judd took to Twitter to warn his followers that his deputies would be checking IDs at the county’s emergency shelters and taking anyone with an open warrant straight to “the safe and secure shelter called the Polk County Jail.” Judd also noted that “sex offenders/predators will not be allowed” in the shelters, and that anyone with an open warrant should simply turn themselves in at the jail. Everybody wins, right?

Carrie Eleazer Horstman, the Sheriff’s public information officer, told In Justice Today that a photo I.D. is not a prerequisite to gain admission to the shelters, and that Polk County residents without I.D. will not be turned away. However, Horstman said, “We’ll figure out another way to identify them.”

The Sheriff’s warnings attracted ample criticism from fellow Twitter users, who pointed out that warrants can be opened for low-level offenses such as unpaid traffic tickets, and argued that his tweet put lives at risk by effectively discouraging people from seeking a safe place to wait out the storm.

“[Sheriff Judd] is jeopardizing [law enforcement] officers’ lives and some of the community’s lives by prioritizing open warrants over immediate public safety,” Andrew Ferguson, a criminal law professor at the University of the District of Columbia’s law school told In Justice Today. “If you’re diverting [law enforcement] resources to check I.D.s, it means you’re not helping people who might be in immediate danger.”

The county, which is en route from Tampa to Orlando, is directly in the forecasted path of the storm. On Friday, the county’s emergency management director issued a voluntary evacuation to all residents encouraging them to seek cover in emergency shelters. According to Polk County’s own publicly available map of flood zones, the county’s two central jails are in the Flood Zones A and AE, which are designated the most at-risk of flooding, according to FEMA.

Horstman said there are currently no plans to evacuate the jail, and that when three hurricanes passed through the county in 2004, the jails did not flood. “If that changes, we will definitely safely and securely transport inmates elsewhere,” Horstman added, noting that an additional jail in the south part of the county could accommodate extra inmates if an evacuation became necessary.

Beyond the safety of people who may have open warrants or names on the sex offender registry, activists are concerned that I.D. checks at shelters could discourage undocumented immigrants from seeking cover from the storm. On Thursday, the Florida Immigration Coalition (FLIC) sent a letter to Gov. Rick Scott asking that he “make an official statement to assure Floridians that they will be safe wherever they should seek shelter.”

Horstman, when asked about the I.D. checks, told In Justice Today that “we are not turning away any illegals.”

Other organizations, such as Color of Change, have echoed FLIC’s call to Gov. Scott.

“At a time like this, the safety of every Floridian should be a priority,” said Scott Roberts, Senior Criminal Justice Campaigns Director for Color of Change. “If Grady Judd is going to invest resources in locking people up at a time like this, someone like the Governor needs to step in and stop him from putting lives in danger just to fill his prison cells.”

More in Explainers

San Francisco wants safe injection sites. Law enforcement stands in its way.

There are approximately 22,000 intravenous drug users in the city.

San Francisco wants safe injection sites. Law enforcement stands in its way.

There are approximately 22,000 intravenous drug users in the city.

San Francisco has long felt the impact of the country’s growing opioid crisis. The city is home to approximately 22,000 residents who inject heroin and other prescription drugs, and hundreds of people have overdosed in recent years.

Public health officials, lawmakers, and community organizations are working diligently to develop a multi-pronged approach to tackle the problem. Now, these groups are overwhelmingly supporting a state bill that would open safe injection sites in San Francisco County and seven other counties in the California. Similar sites are currently up and running in 66 cities worldwide, and countless lives have been saved. But there is one group that adamantly opposes the idea and has the power to stop it dead in its tracks: law enforcement.

California Assembly Bill 186 is intended to create a “safer drug consumption program” by opening facilities where intravenous drug users can be monitored by health care professionals. While the bill acknowledges existing law that prohibits the use of controlled substances, it aims to reduce overdoses by putting drug users under the watchful eye of doctors and other medical personnel who can provide life-saving treatment on the spot. Drug users would also have access to clean needles and receive referrals for substance abuse treatment elsewhere. The bill would also protect people who shoot up at designated injection sites from criminal charges.

Stockton Assemblywoman Susan Eggman introduced the proposal in January, which was co-authored by California State Senator Scott Wiener. Wiener represents San Francisco and describes himself as “a passionate supporter” of safe injection. “I am a big believer in harm reduction, public health strategies and trying new things,” he told the San Francisco Examiner in April. “The current situation is not working well. You can see that with injection drug use in our streets and syringes.”

The legislation is endorsed by public defenders, drug policy experts, and substance abuse treatment providers. It is also backed by San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon, at a time when prosecutors in other parts of the country are eager to ramp up enforcement and enhance criminal penalties for illicit drug use. San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors has yet to take an official stance on the matter, but they have created a task force to study safe injection sites and are expected to review the findings this month.

Despite widespread support from community members, and the willingness of city leaders to at least consider safe injection sites as a viable solution to the epidemic, law enforcement associations are not on board.

“While we appreciate that the intent of the bill is to provide a space where people who use drugs can do so under the watchful eye of healthcare professionals who may also educate and connect them with addiction treatment services, we are concerned about the impact this drug activity would have on crime in the areas surrounding these sites,” the California District Attorneys Association testified during a senate committee hearing on the bill. “Beyond the drug and theft crimes that are often committed by individuals with substance abuse issues, those individuals themselves may become attractive targets for other criminals who would take advantage of these geographic clusters of impaired victims.”

Police organizations also believe that the proposal is merely giving people the green light to use drugs illegally. According to the legislative director of the California State Sheriffs’ Association, Cory Salzillo, the approach “sends the wrong message about drug use.” He says it is hard to gauge what will happen to drug users upon leaving safe injection sites. The California Police Chiefs’ Association argues that such a policy would violate federal law, and that designated injection sites “fall short in supporting long-term healing.”

Altogether, this opposition could be enough to kill the bill.

Law enforcement agencies are historically adept at influencing political decisions. They have the backing of hundreds — if not thousands — of members, which gives them significant lobbying power within political circles. Together, these groups have blocked a wide range of criminal justice proposals that have bipartisan backing; this year alone, efforts to make juvenile sentencing more humaneeliminate civil asset forfeiture, and reform bail have gone up in flames due to law enforcement pressure. In California, police organizations have proven time and time again that they are a force to be reckoned with, blocking legislation that would have reformed body camera policies and made police records more accessible to the public in recent years.

With staunch opposition from police and prosecutors throughout California, Assembly Bill 186 could suffer a similar fate. It may not matter that the district attorney in San Francisco believes in the bill’s potential.

As eager as San Franciscans are for safe injection sites, time is running out. The bill passed the California State Assembly in June, and state senators have sat on the bill ever since. Law enforcement pressure is likely behind this foot-dragging. There is now one week left to vote on the life-saving measure before it dies in the legislature. The longer lawmakers wait, the longer thousands of lives are left hanging in the balance.

Thanks to Josie Duffy Rice.

More in Podcasts