Dobie Gillis Williams was executed by Louisiana on this date in 1999.
Sister Helen Prejean, the Louisiana nun of Dead Man Walking fame, ministered to Williams on death row and became convinced of his innocence — a perspective she argues forcefully in another book, The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions.*
Sister Helen has been accused of overstating her argument here; certainly the state was able to develop a number of incriminating circumstances, like Williams’s observed absence from his home just a half-mile from the murder and abrasions that speculatively could have been incurred shimmying out the small bathroom window. The best forensic evidence was blood at the scene matched by type to Dobie Williams, although blood was oddly absent from the purported murder weapon dropped outside of Sonja Knippers’s Sabine Parish home one summer night in 1984.
Home on a prison furlough, Williams profiled as a central casting suspect and his un-recorded confession late that night would cinch the case. Williams’s attorneys throughout his 14-plus-year legal odyssey suggested that the borderline developmentally disabled Williams might have been manipulated into a false confession, a factor that today is today increasingly understood as a frequent contributor to wrongful convictions. What Helen Prejean wrote about back in 2005 of the possible dynamic could certainly be read as special pleading but her understanding of the interrogation as an event of collaborative storytelling full of subtle back-and-forth cues ran well ahead of the general public’s.
Dobie’s defense attorney, Michael Bonnette, in his cross-examination of the officers, pressed them on the way the confession had been obtained, taking Dobie in the middle of the night and questioning him over and over, feeding him information. Bonnette did get the officers to acknowledge two crucial pieces of information about the crime they had relayed to Dobie — that the victim had been stabbed and that the crime had taken place in the bathroom. Perhaps they had also pieced things together for him: If there was a stabbing, there had to be a knife — so where was the knife? And how did he enter and leave the apartment? Didn’t he leave through the bathroom window? Didn’t it have to be the bathroom window, since that was what Mr. Knippers reported his dying wife had said?
Coming up on two decades gone, Dobie Gillis Williams’s case isn’t widely remembered these days; the Death Penalty Information Center doesn’t even name him on its “Executed but Possibly Innocent” page.
The likely reason is that Williams had a November 1998 execution date stayed so that DNA tests could be attempted on the bathroom curtains, the ones that had yielded the blood type match at the time of the trial — and the tested sample reportedly matched Williams. Helen Prejean is sticking to her guns; she explains why she doubts the lab’s conclusions here.