Cover Story

In Defense of Dobie

Sister Helen Prejean remembers the legal fight to save Louisiana death row prisoner Dobie Gillis Williams, an indigent man with an IQ of 65 whom Prejean believes was innocent.

"Honorable people have disagreed about the justice of executing the guilty, but can anyone argue about the justice of executing the innocent?" asks Roman Catholic nun and Baton Rouge native Helen Prejean in her new book, The Death of Innocents.

That question is the core argument of The Death of Innocents, a sequel of sorts to Prejean's 1993 book, Dead Man Walking. In both cases, Prejean writes of being a spiritual advisor to death row prisoners and ultimately witnessing the executions of the inmates she counseled. But there is one primary difference about the men she writes about in her new book: Prejean believes they were innocent of the crimes they were accused of committing. In the past 10 years, she's seen the inner workings of the legal and justice system that surrounds and governs death row, and some of her discoveries are chilling. (In the past six years alone, DNA testing and other new evidence has freed seven men from Louisiana's death row.)

In the following exclusive excerpt from The Death of Innocents, Prejean describes the decade-plus struggle to save Louisiana prisoner Dobie Gillis Williams ' an indigent man with an IQ of 65 ' from execution. For proponents or opponents of the death penalty, Williams' story isn't easily forgotten. ' Scott Jordan, managing editor

I first met him I was struck by his name, Dobie Gillis, and then when I heard he had a brother named John Boy, another TV character, I knew for sure his mama must like to watch a lot of TV. Betty Williams, Dobie Williams's mama, is here now in the death house of the Louisiana State Penitentiary, a terrible place for a mama to be. It's Jan. 8, 1999, at 1 p.m., and she's here with family members, two of Dobie's lawyers, and me, his spiritual adviser, and we're all waiting it out with Dobie to see if the state is really going to kill him this time.

Dobie's death is set to conclude a story that began more than 14 years before, in the early morning hours of July 8, 1984. It was then that 43-year-old Sonja Merritt Knippers was stabbed to death as she sat on the toilet in her bathroom in Many, La., a small town in north central Louisiana. Mrs. Knippers's husband, Herb, who said he was in the bedroom during the slaying, told investigators that he heard his wife yelling, "A black man is killing me," which led police to round up three black men, Dobie Gillis Williams among them. He was home on a weekend furlough from Camp Beauregard, a minimum-security detention facility, where he was serving a term for burglary. He had been allowed the visit because he was a model prisoner, not prone to violence.

At 2:30 a.m., police officers seized Dobie, asleep on the couch at his grandfather's house, brought him to the police station, and began interrogating him. They told him that they would be there for the rest of the night and all morning and all the next day if need be, until they "got to the bottom of this." Three police officers later testified that Dobie confessed, and at the crime scene investigators found a bloodstain on a bathroom curtain, which the state crime lab declared was consistent in seven categories with Dobie's, and statistically, that combination would occur in only two in 100,000 black people. Investigators also found a "dark-pigmented piece of skin" on the brick ledge of the bathroom window, through which the killer supposedly entered and escaped.

Dobie's trial didn't last long. Within one week, the jury was selected, evidence presented, a guilty verdict rendered, and a death sentence imposed.

Now, waiting here in the death house, I pray. No, God, not Dobie. I've been visiting him for eight years. He's 38 years old, indigent, has an IQ of 65, well below the score of 70 that indicates mental retardation. He has rheumatoid arthritis. His fingers are gnarled. His left knee is especially bad, and he walks slowly, with labored steps. He has a slight build, keeps his hair cropped close, and wears big glasses, which he says gives him an intellectual look. His low IQ forces him to play catch-up during most conversations, especially if he is in a group.

When I first started visiting the condemned in 1982, I presumed the guilt of everyone on death row. I thought that an innocent person on death row would be a pure anomaly, a fluke. Not with all the extensive court reviews and appeals. Now, after working intimately with so many of the condemned and their attorneys, I know a lot better how the criminal justice system operates and how innocent people can end up on death row. Now I know that 95 percent of the justice an accused person can expect to get in the criminal justice system must happen at trial. Because once the "raw stuff" of forensic evidence, eyewitness accounts, police reports, expert witnesses, and alibis is presented and decided upon by a jury, chances are no court will ever allow it to be looked at again. With so much in the balance as you go to trial, you better have a skilled, energetic lawyer who thoroughly knows the law and how to conduct an exhaustive investigation and is aggressive enough to get hold of the original police report with its fresh, uncensored reporting of facts and eyewitness accounts.

Honorable people have disagreed about the justice of executing the guilty, but can anyone argue about the justice of executing the innocent? And can anyone doubt, after the revelations of the past five years, that we do it all the time?

No, God, not Dobie.

The Sabine Index, the Many, La., weekly newspaper, in its front-page articles about the Knippers murder and the ensuing 14-year legal struggle to bring Dobie to execution, was guided by the prosecution's version of events and gave ample coverage to any statement or commentary the district attorney wished to make about the case. This week's edition, in the final countdown to Dobie's execution, gives a summary of the case, a version of events that essentially recapitulates the prosecution's presentation to the jury.

Evidence gathered at the scene and elsewhere helped lead to Dobie's conviction, the Index reports: "a black pigmented piece of skin and a pubic hair, found on the brick window ledge â?¦ a blood-soaked curtain â?¦ [S]crapes on [Dobie's] legs and a puncture wound" as well as a bloody T-shirt found stashed near the house where Dobie was staying. "By 5:30 a.m.," the paper says, "Williams had allegedly confessed to the crime on a tape recording. Soon after, though, it was discovered that the recorder had not been properly used â?¦ and there was no recording."

Actually, there was no blood on the T-shirt. What appeared to be the most damning evidence against Dobie was the bloodstain on the curtain. The last-minute stay of execution Dobie received in November 1998 was to allow for DNA testing of that bloodstain. DNA testing had not been available at the time of Dobie's original trial, but I'm not convinced that fact alone motivated District Attorney Don Burkett to stop Dobie's execution so that DNA testing could be done. I think Burkett was upset by the report he saw of a top-notch bloodstain expert, Stuart James, whose analysis of the evidence seriously questioned Burkett's outrageously contrived scenario of how Dobie supposedly killed Sonja Knippers.

At trial, Dobie's defense attorney had failed to get independent forensic testing done, and this allowed Burkett's version of the crime to go uncontested for 13 years. That is, until Dobie's appellate defense team ' their backs against the wall in the courts, their client about to die ' hired Stuart James to study the forensic evidence to see if it might point to Dobie's innocence, or at least raise substantive questions about his guilt. Faced with James's critical analysis of bloodstains, which showed that Dobie could not possibly have entered and exited through the tiny bathroom window, as he had argued (the window fully opened measured 11 inches high and 1 foot 8 inches wide), Burkett agreed to the DNA testing. Although James's report had been shown only to him and not to the public, Burkett must have known that Dobie's defense could easily make it public. The all-white jury had readily believed his scenario, but what would the general public think?

Whatever his motivation, Burkett's last-minute call for DNA testing was a decent and fair-minded act. He could have let the execution proceed, declared the case closed, and then ordered the destruction of evidence ' including DNA ' rendered extraneous by the execution. My own hunch is that Burkett must have been shaken by Stuart James's analysis, which so strongly contradicted his own. I wonder if he allowed the DNA testing because he knew that if a scientifically accurate test such as DNA proved to be a "match" with Dobie's blood on the curtain, that fact alone would seal Dobie's guilt in the minds of most people (maybe in his own mind as well). But as a prosecutor, Burkett must have known that even DNA confirmation that Dobie's blood had been found at the scene of the murder was still only circumstantial evidence. He well knew that to successfully argue proof of guilt beyond reasonable doubt, the prosecution must present a scenario of the crime that is consistent with the "story" the evidence tells.

The power to choose the laboratory to conduct the DNA testing was in Burkett's hands, and he selected GeneScreen Laboratory in Dallas. He also chose to bar Dobie's defense from conducting simultaneous testing by experts of their choice or to have a representative present to observe the testing at GeneScreen. Defense attorney Nick Trenticosta had to go along with the prosecutor's decision. "What else could I do?" Nick later told me. "In just a few hours they were going to kill Dobie unless the prosecution called for a stay, so I wasn't in any kind of position to demand fair terms for the testing. I figured that if Burnett could stay the execution, then maybe later he and I could work out a more equitable arrangement for testing." Nick wasn't particularly happy about the choice of GeneScreen, but given the imminence of Dobie's death, he didn't have time to research the lab's reputation among experts in the field.

On Dec. 1, 1998, GeneScreen Laboratory sent its much awaited report to Burkett's office. Their DNA analysis of the blood sample had led them to conclude that the sample on the curtain and Dobie's blood matched. Burkett immediately released the results of the GeneScreen report to the media and declared that the most advanced scientific technology of the day had now confirmed beyond doubt what the state had contended all along ' that Dobie Gillis Williams was guilty of the murder of Sonja Knippers. A day or two later, Burkett requested a new execution date for Dobie, and a Louisiana judge readily obliged, setting the date five weeks away on Jan. 8, 1999. It was the eleventh date of execution set for Dobie during his 14 years on death row.

As soon as Nick and his team heard of the GeneScreen report, they scrambled desperately to find DNA experts to critique it ' free of charge. Like so many other Louisiana criminal defense lawyers whose clients are poor, Nick always struggles for funds to defend his clients. Louisiana judges are notorious for denying defense requests for expert witnesses and forensic testing. But Nick found Susana Herrero, a criminal investigator in Seattle, who worked with some of the leading DNA experts in the country, among them lawyer Barry Scheck, founder of the Innocence Project, Edward Blake of Forensic Science Associates in Richmond, Calif., and Randell Libby, a molecular geneticist at the University of Washington School of Medicine. For Nick, recruiting DNA experts was a minor challenge compared with the other huge problem he faced. Burkett allowed him access only to the conclusions of GeneScreen's analysis, not its case file, which contained photographs of the actual tests and the technicians' bench notes. Without that raw data, even the best DNA experts he might recruit would have nothing to analyze. Not only had Burkett refused to allow Dobie's defense to conduct independent DNA analysis of the blood evidence or to at least have a representative present during GeneScreen's testing (when only one sample of evidence exists, Nick believes, fairness dictates that both prosecution and defense be present during the testing), but he continued to block Nick from the GeneScreen raw data until Jan. 5, three days before Dobie's scheduled execution. As soon as Nick got his hands on the data, he sent it immediately to Blake and Libby and several other experts.

All of them found serious problems with GeneScreen's work: sloppy technique, poor quality controls, subjective interpretation. On one particular set of tests called STR gels, which line up two ladders of chromosomes to compare them, the gels had been applied so unevenly that it was impossible to measure and compare them. In the same STR test, despite the fact that one in four of the controls failed, the lab relied on the results and drew conclusions. Messy technique means inconclusive results, the experts said. Consequently, none of the experts agreed with the lab's conclusion that the blood sample on the curtain "matched" Dobie's blood. They said the tests should be conducted again, which Burkett refused to have done.

Interestingly, one of the tests that uses polymarkers to line up genetic components or alleles produced a "rogue" allele that could not be accounted for as coming from Dobie or the victim; yet GeneScreen simply glided over this without comment.

But it all came too late. There simply wasn't time to digest the problems and file a motion for retesting of the evidence. Despite the fact that Barry Scheck phoned him and implored him to allow retesting, Burkett simply said that experts always tend to disagree. He was going along with the opinion of the experts at GeneScreen.

And now here we are on Jan. 8 with Dobie in the death house for the third time. Nick and the defense team have nowhere else to go with his case. No court will grant a hearing, and the Louisiana Board of Pardons and Paroles, appointed by pro'death penalty Gov. Mike Foster, has never yet granted clemency to anyone condemned to death.

Recently, we have been witness to astounding admissions of error by state and federal courts forced to free 117 wrongly convicted people from death row since 1973, and the number keeps growing. Seven Louisiana death row inmates have been found to be innocent over the past six years (as of September 2004). Illinois alone has had to free 13 such people, some under sentence of death for eight, 10, 15 years, which in the year 2000 led the governor to enact a moratorium on executions. Some innocent persons were freed because of DNA evidence, others because committed citizens and lawyers were finally able to expose suppressed exculpatory evidence, outrageous testimonies of jailhouse snitches, falsified police reports, or evidence of "coached" eyewitnesses. In Illinois, Anthony Porter, two days away from execution, was freed because journalism students from Northwestern University dismantled the case against him and exposed the real murderer.

In 1997, the American Bar Association, many of whose members support the death penalty in principle, found such rank unfairness in the application of the death penalty that they called for a moratorium. It was concern about "due process" and "equal justice under the law," so palpably absent in the case of many indigent and minority defendants, that persuaded the ABA to pass its resolution. Nobody knows better than lawyers what kind of justice gets meted out in the courts.

Brady v. Maryland in 1963 requires prosecutors to turn over evidence that could be favorable to the accused, but the requirement has no teeth. Working closely with police, prosecutors are privy to such information, but turning it over to the defense seems a more or less voluntary action that requires a huge degree of integrity on the prosecution's part. Defense attorneys have no way of knowing what is being withheld from them, nor do they have an assured way of getting such information from prosecutors, who suffer virtually no penalty for withholding it. Of the more than 500 documented cases in which innocent people have been convicted of homicide in the past century, including 175 or so where the defendant was sentenced to death, "prosecutorial misconduct" is one of the most frequent causes of miscarriage of justice.

Dobie's defense counsel, Michael Bonnette, couldn't stop the tide unleashed against his client. To retain Bonnette's services, Dobie's family had cobbled together $10,000, which took some doing, with uncles and aunts and Dobie's mama putting in what they could. Betty said the family wanted an African American to defend Dobie. They knew he'd appreciate how treacherous Dobie's situation was ' a young black man accused of killing a white woman ' and use all his lawyerly skills to fight hard for Dobie.

Unfortunately, they made the wrong choice. Bonnette not only lost this case but has since been disbarred for unethical practices in other cases.

Burkett called on the testimonies of two coroners ' Clarence Poinboeuf and George McCormick ' to interpret the bloodstain evidence to the jury. Poinboeuf said that the knife, the alleged murder weapon (for which the crime lab gave no report on fingerprints), had lain all night in the grass and had been covered by dew, which he thought could have washed off the blood. And McCormick explained that it was highly possible the assailant would have none of the victim's blood on him because, in his opinion, the bloodstains on the bathroom wall and curtain were "wiped" blood, not "splashed" blood, which occurred when the victim stood up, fell against the wall, and grabbed the curtain. So, since the blood didn't "splash," none of it got onto the killer. McCormick also explained that because Mrs. Knippers was stabbed mostly in her back as she sat, slumped over, on the toilet, the blood tended to pool inside her nightgown and would not therefore have spurted onto the murderer's clothing. Even the jugular vein, severed in the victim's neck during the stabbing, would tend not to spurt blood, McCormick explained, because a vein, not an artery, had been severed, and veins don't spurt blood the way arteries do.

Years later, forensic expert Stuart James would be aghast at this peculiar explanation. But his expertise was not available at Dobie's trial.

In our meeting, Stuart is visibly upset over Dobie's imminent execution, and he starts in right away about what he learned from the bloodstain evidence, laying out photographs of the bathroom scene on the table and pointing out the blood on the wall under the window. He tells us that the blood clearly is impact spatter, not wiped blood (as the prosecution's expert contended), and he points out the copious amount, which would suggest the attacker would have some of Mrs. Knippers's blood on him, especially on his hands, from wielding a knife in eight different thrusts. Yet we know no blood whatsoever was found on Dobie's clothes, nor is there a palm print or fingerprint on the windowsill as he, supposedly, lifted himself out of the window. Nor is there any kind of alteration of bloodstains under the windowsill where his feet and legs would have rubbed as he hoisted himself through. He'd have to be some kind of trained gymnast to spring from a standing position through such a small window without leaving even a fingerprint. But even supposing such a gymnast scenario, there are no footprints in the bathroom or outside the window, either.

And the blood on the curtain identified as Dobie's blood?

Stuart explains that when he examined the spot of blood said to be Dobie's, he noticed that it saturated the curtain. He points out that such a saturated stain would have to come from a wound on Dobie's body that was actively bleeding, and which wound was that? Certainly not the superficial wound in the web of his left hand. Stuart goes on to say that it was never really explained at trial exactly how this so-called puncture wound in Dobie's hand was received, only some casual assumption that he must have inflicted it on himself when he was stabbing his victim. Betty Williams later told me that Dobie cut his hand when he mowed her lawn, her father's lawn, and her brother's lawn, all on the day of the murder. Betty said her dad and sister were there and remembered Dobie asking for some alcohol to clean the wound.

Stuart also questions whether such a clear-cut drop of blood could have saturated the curtain by Dobie scraping against it in an effort to squeeze through the tiny window opening. He'd be brushing against the curtain, which would leave a bloodstain other than the kind that's here, more of a brushed-against stain than such a well-defined droplet, he explains.

And the scrapes on Dobie's legs? Could they possibly explain Dobie's blood on the curtain? I ask Stuart James.

"Two problems," he says. The first problem is that according to trial testimony, Dobie supposedly scraped his shins on the bricks of the window ledge on his way out of the window ' an exit, the prosecution contended, that was headfirst. So how did he get blood on the curtains, which were inside the window, from legs that hadn't yet been scraped on the window ledge outside?

The second problem, Stuart says, is that the kind of saturated bloodstain that is so clearly delineated couldn't have been obtained from the scratches on Dobie's leg brushing against cloth. There are bloodstains on the inside of Dobie's blue jeans from some cuts, Stuart says, but he couldn't tell from the photos whether or not the abrasions were fresh, which the prosecution had claimed. A lot of things are missing, Stuart says, such as the videotape that supposedly would have shown fresh abrasions.

(That makes three tapes not available for viewing: the one of Dobie's alleged confession, one of Officer Ted Delacerda's headlong high jump out of that window, and now this.)

And the dark-pigmented skin the prosecution said they found on the window ledge?

"I never saw it," Stuart says. It disappeared from the plastic tube in the crime laboratory where it was brought for testing. Nor was it ever confirmed as human skin when the lab tested it.

It's too late to do anything now, too late to save Dobie's life. Dobie says he was drinking cognac and beer with friends at Fred Harris's store until about 11:30, when he started feeling sick and headed home. What amazes me is that every time he tells the story, I can see how bad he feels that he disobeyed his mama that night. He had promised her he wouldn't drink when he came home, and there he was, disobeying her, knowing that it was "always a bad thing" when he didn't listen to his mama. Whenever he talks of that July night, he says, "Man, I knew I should have listened to Mama."

He knows, of course, that what is happening to him is entirely disproportionate. He knows that, but what seems to gnaw at him most is knowing that he let his mama down, and now all this trouble is coming down on her and him and his whole family. All because he was so stupid as to go to Fred Harris's store that night to drink beer and sweet cognac that made him sick as a dog. "Man," he says, shaking his head, "man, why did I have to go and do that?"

Warden [Burl] Cain comes into the room and asks, "How's everybody doing?" He says he's been driving around the prison, checking on the duck population. Permits are given to go duck hunting and fishing here. "Didn't see many ducks," he says. "Nothing much is happening today. In this place you can have all hell break loose with everything happening or a day like today with nothing happening."

Nothing happening, give or take a man about to be killed.

With the others, who were truly guilty of terrible crimes, I always experienced a wrenching tension ' on the one hand, abhorring their crimes against innocent victims, and on the other, feeling compassion for them in their torturous ordeal. But Dobie? I feel only compassion for him and his family and a roaring anger at the injustice and cruelty done to him this night and over the past 14 years.

Carol, Paula, and I walk past the armed guards out into the mild January night. It is Jan. 8, 1999, a date sealed forever now in my mind. Several sisters from my community are waiting for me outside the gates. They have been praying for Dobie and for his family and for me and for the Knippers family ' they pray for everybody. Now, seeing me, they move in and hug me warmly, each one. This is the way it always is. Every time I come out of these gates after an execution, my sisters are waiting for me. Thank God for the sisterhood.

Later, Paula would tell me that when she got home, she received a call from Stuart James, the methodical man of science ' not the type you would expect to be emotional. But he was devastated. After what he had discovered, he couldn't believe they went ahead with the execution.

Five days after Dobie is killed, Sister Margaret Maggio and I drive to Many for Dobie's wake. We walk inside Jenkins Funeral Home, in the black section of town, where Betty and all the family and friends have gathered, and I see Dobie for the first time in a suit.

"Look at the peace on his face," Betty says. "God called him home and, see, he's glowing, and look how handsome he is and how good he looks in that white suit. He's the most handsome of my boys, and look at how that gold shirt sets him off. I had wanted a white shirt, but the funeral home people knew that the gold would set him off."

Dobie's wake consists of prayers, hymns, and testimonies, and I'm asked to give a testimony. I follow Nick Trenticosta, Dobie's lead attorney in his postconviction appeal, who worked so hard to keep Dobie from execution over 14 years. Many of the 11 stays of execution granted Dobie were due in no small part to Nick's good work.

When I get up to speak ' Sister Margaret, the lawyers, and I are the only white people at the wake ' I talk about Dobie's dignity, how bravely he died, how he loved his family, how wrong his killing by the state was, and how we all have to struggle for justice, that it's never just handed to us, as Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King used to say. I say what a privilege it has been to know Dobie and to be his friend.

Afterward we go to the trailer where the family lives, stand in the kitchen, eat ham and potato salad, and talk about Dobie. I repeat to Betty the promise I made to Dobie that I would write his story, and that comforts her. "Nobody ever heard his voice," she says. "He never got to speak."

For more information on Sister Helen Prejean and her work, visit