ACLU sues Missouri, claims thousands received inadequate legal counsel

The death row inmate is just one of many accusing the state of violating their constitutional right to a fair trial.

ST. LOUIS - Wednesday the ACLU is claiming the stay of execution for a convicted murderer highlights massive problems with Missouri's criminal justice system.

Marcellus Williams was convicted of fatally stabbing former St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Felicia Gayle during a burglary at her University City home in 1998.

Missouri Governor Eric Greitens halted the scheduled execution Tuesday after DNA raised questions about his guilt. The death row inmate is just one of thousands accusing the state of violating their constitutional right to a fair trial.

The ACLU and the MacArthur Justice Center are suing the state, claiming thousands have not received adequate legal counsel for nearly three decades because the state's public defenders are understaffed and underfunded.

An attorney who worked with the Public Defenders to represent Marcellus Williams in his murder trial signed an affidavit admitting that he was working on another high profile case and ran out of time. The affidavit states, "The court was aware due to our motions for continuance that we had not had sufficient time to effectively investigate Marcellus' case."

ACLU spokeswoman Daniela Velázquez says this is one of many examples that prove the state's public defenders are understaffed and people could lose their lives over it, “Evidence often remains undiscovered, expert witnesses aren't called, and all the evidence you need for a fair trial, they don't always happen.”

Last year the Missouri State Public Defenders System had about 370 attorney positions and 82,000 clients. Jadda Kennedy's public defender did an interview with 5 On Your Side last November, admitting she couldn't provide adequate time to the murder case, because she had between 70 to 90 clients at once. Kennedy sat in jail for nearly a year for a crime she didn't commit.

Susan McGraugh, the director of Saint Louis University's criminal defense clinic says since 1973, 155 people have been cleared from death row. McGraugh hopes the public defenders system receives more resources.  The attorney general's office says it's up to the legislature and the governor’s office to appropriate funds for state agencies.

5 On Your Side reached out to the governor's office, but haven't received a response yet.

The Missouri State Public Defenders System isn't commenting because of pending litigation.

© 2017 KSDK-TV


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