Aug. 22 (UPI) -- Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens on Tuesday halted the execution of a man set to die later in the day for the 1998 stabbing death of a newspaper reporter.
The governor appointed a board to investigate the case after lawyers for Marcellus Williams argued that new DNA evidence has exonerated him of guilt. They had asked the U.S. Supreme Court to call off the execution.
Williams, 48, was convicted in 2001 and sentenced to death for the murder of Felicia Gayle.
Missouri law allows the governor to appoint a board of inquiry to present information to the governor about whether a condemned inmate should be executed. Among those appointed to the board are retired Missouri judges.
"A sentence of death is the ultimate, permanent punishment," Geitens said in a statement. "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."
Earlier, Williams' attorneys asked the nation's high court for an emergency stay.
A brief, written by defense attorney Kent Gipson, reads, "In this case, there is conclusive scientific evidence that another man committed the crime."
The execution would have been Missouri's second this year.
Sophisticated testing was not available at the time of the original trial, but attorneys say recent tests on the murder weapon show the DNA on the knife does not belong to Williams.
The Missouri Supreme Court postponed Williams' execution in 2015 so further DNA testing could be arranged. Last week, after test results became available, the state's high court denied a stay but did not cite a reason.
Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, with whom the appeal was filed Monday, has not yet offered a ruling.
Missouri prosecutors say there is considerable non-DNA evidence showing Williams' guilt. For example, they say, Williams had sold Gayle's laptop to a third party after the crime -- and two witnesses independently said he confessed to them.
"Our office is confident in Marcellus Williams' guilt and plans to move forward," Loree Anne Paradise, deputy chief of staff for Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley, said.
Defense attorneys argue, though, that there is no forensic evidence linking Williams to the crime -- and another person's DNA on the weapon should be sufficient cause to stop the execution.
"When you're stabbing, DNA transfers because of restriction and force. If you're stabbing anyone, you have a good chance of transferring your DNA because of that force," said Greg Hampikian, a biologist and forensic DNA authority hired by Williams' lawyers, told CNN.
Hampikian added that the DNA analysis of the knife isn't enough to incriminate someone, but it is enough to exclude somebody.
"It's like finding a Social Security card with some blurred numbers. There's still enough there to at least exclude someone," he said.
Several groups, including the Mid-Missouri Fellowship of Reconciliation and Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, plan to hold "Vigils for Life" Tuesday for Williams.