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US: Missouri halts execution of Marcellus Williams

Governor stays execution of Marcellus Williams a few hours before he was due to be lethally injected in a state prison.

The US state of Missouri has halted the execution of a man who was scheduled to be put to death on Tuesday for the 1998 murder of a woman after new DNA evidence surfaced supporting his claim to innocence.

Missouri Governor Eric Greitens issued a stay of execution on Tuesday for Marcellus Williams, who was sentenced to death in 2001 for killing Lisha Gayle, a former reporter, during a burglary.

The decision came a few hours before Williams was due to be lethally injected in a state prison.

The execution of Williams, who has always maintained his innocence, was originally planned for January 28, 2015, but a court decided that DNA from the case should be investigated using techniques that were not available when trial took place.

This test showed that the DNA on the murder weapon was not of Williams.

Despite this new evidence, the court refused to take these new facts into consideration, planning to go ahead with the execution nonetheless.

"A sentence of death is the ultimate, permanent punishment," Greitens said in a press release on Tuesday. "To carry out the death penalty, the people of Missouri must have confidence in the judgment of guilt."

"In light of new information, I am appointing a Board of Inquiry in this case."

Kent Gipson, the lawyer of Williams, said he was "very happy" with the governor's decision.

"We think it’s the right decision based on the new DNA evidence," Gipson said. "We're ready to present all our evidence to the board of inquiry and we are fairly confident that this is going to end well for Marcellus."

The Board of Inquiry appointed by the governor will consist of five former Missouri judges who will report back to Greitens with a recommendation as to whether or not Williams should be executed or his sentence of death commuted.

Staci Pratt, executive director of human rights organisation Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, who has been campaigning against the execution, also welcomed Greitens' decision.

"We have much to celebrate right now but also much to acknowledge how we got to this day that we need to hold these rallies. Our capital punishment is broken and our judicial system still has major flaws," Pratt said.

"This is a wakeup call and a siren; this is about more than just Marcellus' case. Naturally, we are happy with today's result, but we must make sure that cases like Marcellus' don't arise again."

Ahead of Greitens' statement, more than 200,000 people had signed a petition asking for the governor's intervention.

"The voices of the people definitely mattered," Pratt said. "Naturally, we're still vigilant, we're still here to see this process and that he gets a fair inquiry by this board."

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