How Missouri man on death row uses poetry to express himself while fighting for innocence (2024)

Marcellus “Khaliifah” Williams wrote his first poem when he was about 14 — for a girl he was “sweet on” while growing up in St. Louis. He wrote it in pencil on a sheet of notebook paper and gave it to her.

“This was my very first attempt at poetry and I just put it together and wrote her a poem, and I’m like ‘wow’ she liked it and I’m like ‘OK I guess I did a good job,’” he said late last month during a call from Potosi Correctional Center, where death row prisoners are incarcerated in Missouri.

More than 40 years later and after spending more than two decades on death row, Williams is still writing poems to express himself. He said he has picked up the pen more often in prison than during other times in his life, and especially in the past year as he continues to advocate for his innocence.

The 55 year old was found guilty in the 1998 fatal stabbing of Felicia Gayle in St. Louis County and came within hours of being executed in 2017.

Williams is not linked to evidence from the crime scene, including DNA on the murder weapon, shoe prints, fingerprints or hair.

Prosecutors support vacating his 2001 conviction and using a law that went into effect in 2021, filed a motion to intervene in his case earlier this year.

Despite a request from prosecutors to delay scheduling Williams’ execution, the Missouri Supreme Court on Tuesday set the date for Sept. 24.

Williams said Wednesday that he has to “keep going forward” and “take everything day by day.”

Tricia Bushnell, executive director of the Midwest Innocence Project, which represents Williams, said the court’s action was “alarming.”

“To date, no court has ever reviewed the DNA evidence proving Mr. Williams was not the individual who wielded the murder weapon and committed this crime,” she said in a statement. “Yet, the State successfully sought an execution date, highlighting the system’s emphasis on finality over innocence. That is not justice.”

The prosecutor’s office said the move was “unprecedented.”

“This is the first time the state’s highest court has set an execution date for someone with a motion to vacate filed under this new statute pending in a lower court,” Christopher King, a spokesman for the St. Louis County Prosecutor’s Office, said in a statement Wednesday. “We will proceed with the courts as we see proper and announce any actions we take with the courts after we have taken them.”

‘I have released something’

Sometimes Williams writes a poem for a specific person, which he gifts them, often without saving a copy for himself. Other times, he has an issue or word in mind, which inspires him.

“The process is just whatever I think about or want to discuss or current affairs or whatever it may be,” he said. “I might just have just a word, like I might come up with a word, like phrases like ‘free-dumb.’”

He’s using that term for a poem about the political system in an election year.

Michelle Smith, co-director of Missourians to Abolish the Death Penalty, said Williams has sent her some of his poems and that he’s “an amazing wordsmith.”

“Khaliifah’s poetry is wide-ranging,” she said. “He’s very, very talented.”

Usually, Williams writes with ink and later transfers it to his prison-issued tablet. He also keeps “a trusty dictionary” with him.

Williams said he’s his own worst critic but hopes he imparts works that provoke reflection. He wants readers “to think about things critically, think about things differently” and his words to prompt readers “not to look at it within that same ol’ cultural norm standards, just in a box or a cliche.”

He has recently written about AI, an idea he got from a dream that started off in an elementary schoolyard, and Palestinian children. He is particularly proud of a poem he wrote two days after George Floyd was killed in 2020 by a Minneapolis police officer entitled “I Can’t Breathe.”

“When I’m finished, I do feel a sense of, like I have released something,” he said.

Innocence case

When Williams’ 2017 execution was halted, former Gov. Eric Greitens appointed a board of inquiry to look into his case. Last June, Gov. Mike Parson dissolved the board and lifted the stay of execution. The Missouri Attorney General’s Office immediately moved for an execution date to be set.

Williams’ attorney with the Midwest Innocence Project sued, saying the board never issued a final recommendation to Parson, and he did not have authority to dissolve the board without the recommendation.

Oral arguments were heard before the Missouri Supreme Court in April. On Tuesday, the court ruled that governors have “absolute discretion to grant clemency relief” and that the “Governor was free to rescind it at his discretion.”

Tricia Bushnell, executive director of the Midwest Innocence Project, said Williams’ legal team was disappointed by the court’s decision, but will continue to push on the separate case filed by the St. Louis County Prosecutor’s Office.

“This injustice can still be righted,” she said in a statement.

Prosecutor Wesley Bell filed a 63-page motion to vacate Williams’ conviction in January. He emphasized that physical evidence was not a match to Williams. He also identified issues related to the fairness of Williams’ trial and noted that Williams’ defense attorney had not looked into the credibility of two key witnesses who had been incentivized by reward money.

A hearing in that case has not yet been scheduled.

Hours after the Supreme Court on Tuesday handed down its decision on the governor’s powers and the board of inquiry, it announced the execution date for Williams. Later that day, he said he had been moved to solitary confinement, which is where prisoners with an execution date are housed.

He has written about prison and his innocence case in poems with titles including “The Revolutionary Possibilities of Being Alive” and “Exoneration Over Mitigation.” That 61-line poem reads in part:

- while the rusty scales of justice are overburdened with hypocrisy,

exclusionism and secular weight,

now who cares to care despite being unable to fully relate?

try looking through bright brown eyes or visualize a death warrant and execution date,

as lawyers scramble to litigate -

for their clients in decline or a defiant state,

so obvious what i’m implying still they offer up pills to sedate,

as for me i offer my will and trust in the Best to create,

and i lend my voice to say:


In another poem, Williams wrote about the men he knew on death row who have been executed. It is excerpted in part:

i have lost track of the who and how many have been executed due to a deliberate-unconscious effort on my part similar to a trauma victim who suppresses the experience instinctively as a coping mechanism to the point of forgetting...

truthfully though the above analogy was shared first to aid me in understanding the “why i have forgotten?”

better yet -

a selective forgetfulness

maybe even an inherent bias?

- because i will never forget my friends

my brothers all of whom had distinct voices



and mannerisms

even now if i pause and focus and listen -

i can see them moving about

interacting and alive

- indeed memories are a mercy

and a balm for the heart when dealing with the quietus affair.

Seventy-five people have been exonerated in Missouri since 1991, including six men with death sentences, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.

How Missouri man on death row uses poetry to express himself while fighting for innocence (2024)
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