That’s how our justice system should work.
In reality, our system reflects the time we live in: America is a nation that has only just begun to realize the deep racial disparities in our society. The decision between life and death in our criminal justice system turns too often on race, geography and the quality of counsel.
Capital punishment is biased and fraught with error. That’s why Gov. Eric Greitens must make sure that Marcellus Williams is not executed without a court considering new DNA tests. These tests detected male DNA that does not match Mr. Williams’, casting more than enough doubt to justify a new trial or, at a minimum, a commutation of his sentence.
If we want our system of law and order to be just, we first have to make sure everyone really does have equal protection under the law and access to adequate legal counsel.
In the case of Mr. Williams, his public defenders were unprepared. They were already involved in another high-profile capital murder case at the time they were representing Mr. Williams. They appropriately asked for a continuance but were denied.
In addition, the court denied virtually all of Mr. Williams’ requests for a full pre-trial investigation of the evidence against him as well as requests for forensic testing to clarify if any DNA linked Mr. Williams to the crime.
For at least the past three decades, Missouri has failed to provide people with their constitutional right to adequate legal counsel, resulting in an untold number of injustices.
In 97 percent of their cases last year, Missouri public defenders were unable to devote the minimum number of work hours recommended by the American Bar Association for appropriate representation. That is one of the reasons the ACLU and the MacArthur Justice Center sued the Missouri Public Defender System this year.
The fact that the state will kill Mr. Williams because of our broken public defender system should give the governor and all Missourians pause. Whether defendants are found guilty or not, and whether they are sentenced to death or life without parole, should not turn on whether they can pay for a private attorney who will have the time and resources to provide an adequate defense.
We know that justice is not blind in this country, and we must guard against our prejudices. Prosecutors are far more likely to seek the death penalty and juries are far more likely to return death sentences when the victims are white than when they are black. Evidence of this in Missouri is clear. As of 2015, homicides in Missouri involving white victims were seven times more likely to result in the death penalty than those involving black victims.
Studies also show that prosecutors routinely prevent African-Americans from serving on capital juries, as happened in Williams’ case where the prosecutor struck six of seven African-Americans from the venire panel, leaving just one black juror to serve on the jury.
We don’t have all the answers in Mr. Williams’ case. We do know his representation was inadequate and the state must prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. We must call on our elected officials to recognize the error-prone nature of the death penalty and to restore the presumption of innocence in the face of bias. We must all ask ourselves: Is this what justice looks like?