Marcel Williams has spent the last two decades on death row, and his execution is set to take place next month. But his lawyers argue he never received a fair trial in the first place.

By Kate Wheeling

(Photo: Paul Buck/AFP/Getty Images)

Marcel Williams is scheduled to die on April 24th, 2017. Williams was convicted in 1997 for the rape and murder of Stacy Errickson, a 22-year-old woman who was found in a shallow grave near Little Rock three years earlier. The jury deliberated Williams' sentence for just 30 minutes.

Williams is one of eight men to be executed through lethal injection in Arkansas over just four days in April as part of the state's effort to use up its supply of midazolam before the drug expires.

But Williams' attorneys say his initial trial lawyers failed to present mitigating evidence about his traumatic upbringing to the jury in 1997. That evidence, they argue, would likely have resulted in a life sentence for Williams. Since that initial trial, a procedural technicality has prevented the legal system from righting this wrong. Now, Williams is asking the Arkansas Parole Board for clemency.

The United States Supreme Court has long recognized that the circumstances of an individual's life can influence culpability and thus sentencing. For this very reason, the Court struck down North Carolina's mandatory death sentences for first-degree murders in the 1976 case Woodson v. North Carolina.

"A process that accords no significance to relevant facets of the character and record of the individual offender or the circumstances of the particular offense excludes from consideration in fixing the ultimate punishment of death the possibility of compassionate or mitigating factors stemming from the diverse frailties of humankind," the Court ruled in Woodson v. North Carolina.

Marcel Williams (bottom row, second from the left) is one of eight men scheduled to be executed in April. (Photo: Arkansas Department of Correction)

In Williams' case, that mitigating evidence was his violent and turbulent childhood. In written testimony to the parole board, David Lisak, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts, wrote that Williams, who suffered a childhood marked by neglect, violent beatings, and sexual abuse, was "exposed to pretty much every category of traumatic experience that is generally used to describe childhood trauma." While a child, Williams' mother prostituted him out to older women in exchange for food stamps or money for bills. Lisak characterized the violence Williams endured as "unrelenting" and "savage."

Williams' trial attorneys now claim, according to Williams' petition to the clemency board, that, at that time, Williams' defense team "didn't really understand what the true meaning of what mitigation was," which runs counter to the standards for capital defense attorneys that were already standard practice in the 1990s.

"Certainly by the mid-'80s it was understood that childhood trauma, abuse, parental neglect, extreme physical abuse would be powerful evidence for a jury," says Cassandra Stubbs, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Capital Punishment Project. "That was some of the heart of the evidence that capital defense lawyers should be looking for and investigating in their cases."

"When someone's life is on the line I think there's an exception to any rule that ought to come into play."

The lawyer responsible for Williams' appeal also failed to present this evidence at the proceedings requesting a new trial in 2000—despite the fact that the request was based on the argument that his trial attorneys did not provide adequate counsel when they failed to present mitigating evidence to the jury.

A new crop of attorneys took over Williams' case in 2006 and filed a petition in a federal district court to present evidence about Williams' troubled childhood. And they succeeded in overturning Williams' death sentence, at least temporarily. "[I]t is reasonably probable that but for the errors and omissions of his lawyers the jury would have returned a verdict to impose a sentence of life imprisonment without parole rather than a sentence of death," Chief Justice Leon Holmes found in 2007. Judge Holmes ordered the state to grant Williams a new sentencing hearing or change his sentence from death to life without parole. But the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned his decision on the grounds that the federal court could not consider evidence that was never presented in state courts. In other words, despite the validity of the evidence, Williams no longer had the right to present it, due to his lawyers' errors.

"It's kind of astonishing to me that the court is basically saying, 'there's evidence out there, we know its out there, there's no problems with it, except a procedural problem, but let's go ahead and approve the death sentence,'" Stubbs says.

"A lot of times what the courts will say is they are protecting the law, and they have to follow the rule of the law or its not any good, and to a degree that's true," says Jason Kearney, one of the attorneys who took up Williams' case in 2006. "But ... when someone's life is on the line I think there's an exception to any rule that ought to come into play."

The Williams' parole board hearing on Monday will be the last chance for this evidence to make a difference in his sentence, but the board rarely grants clemency in capital cases, Kearney says. A negative outcome for Williams would also set a troubling precedent for anyone else who has a similar path to clemency.

"For all of this compelling mitigation information to just go unconsidered and to have never been put in front of a jury, the legal system really fails when this happens," Kearney says. "If the clemency board doesn't recognize that, then they're really not serving their purpose."