1999: Dobie Gillis Williams

Add comment January 8th, 2018 Headsman

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.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Lethal Injection,Louisiana,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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1984: Elmo Patrick Sonnier, Dead Man Walking

31 comments April 5th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1984, Elmo Patrick Sonnier was electrocuted in Louisiana’s Angola Prison for abducting and murdering two teens in St. Martin Parish.*

Elmo and his brother Eddie posed as police officers and handcuffed two high schoolers parked at a local makeout point. Then they raped the girl, and shot both of them dead.

Both were given death sentences for the crime.

Eddie managed, as he said, to “give it back” on the grounds that Patrick was the one who did the shooting.

Once Eddie was clear of the death penalty, he tried to cop to the shooting after all, in order to save his little brother.

The appellate life of this case involved unedifying revisions of the “who shot whom” story. Ultimately, Eddie’s later claim to have been the triggerman, though quite possibly true, is not likely to win very much sympathy for his brother. It didn’t help him in the courts, either.

Just the 17th person executed since reinstatement of the death penalty, Sonnier learned that his longshot bid for clemency had been denied straight from the man who denied it — colorful, corrupt Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards, who personally phoned Sonnier to give him the bad news.

Little did Sonnier know that he had equally famous company meeting him in his cell.

Sonnier was the first condemned inmate to receive the spiritual ministration of Sister Helen Prejean.

The then-obscure Louisiana nun would later write the bestseller Dead Man Walking about her experiences with Sonnier and a second death row prisoner, Robert Lee Willie. Prejean remains among the most well-known death penalty opponents in the world today.

While the book Dead Man Walking treats Sonnier and Willie in a nonfiction vein, the film adaptation (review) amalgamated those people into a single character, the fictional “Matthew Poncelet”. It’s apparent from the flashbacks in Dead Man Walking‘s execution scene, however, that Sonnier is the predominant influence on “Poncelet”.

Dead Man Walking is an interesting movie. Though its principals were all vocal death penalty opponents, the film itself is much better art than propaganda. Arguably, the doomed criminal attains a sort of personal redemption — finally admitting responsibility for a crime he had denied for much of the film; seeking the forgiveness of his victims’ surviving family — only because the death penalty awaits him.

The real-life Sister Helen. Her most recent book is The Death of Innocents:An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions.

Susan Sarandon won an Oscar for Best Actress for her turn as Sister Helen. Note that while Sonnier was in fact put to death in the electric chair (as was Robert Lee Willie), director Tim Robbins opted to portray a lethal injection because, as Helen Prejean herself put it,

we don’t want to give people the moral out whereby people could say ‘oh well, we used to do electrocution but that’s too barbaric so now we are humane and inject them’

* The murder that led to this date’s execution took place in the same area where Willie Francis survived a trip to the electric chair: the very chair that killed Patrick Sonnier.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,Louisiana,Murder,Notable Participants,Rape,USA

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