Dobie Gillis Williams
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Dobie Gillis Williams (1961 – January 8, 1999) was an American citizen in Louisiana who was convicted of the murder of Sonja Knippers in 1984, and sentenced to death. He was executed in 1999. His case has been controversial.
Police contended that he confessed, although they had no recording. He was evaluated as intellectually disabled, according to one standard, but his defense attorney failed to discuss this or mitigating factors from his childhood. Williams' execution was twice stayed and his sentence was overturned by a federal district court judge. But Williams was executed because the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that mitigating information was introduced to the jury too late in the case. It ruled that the execution had to proceed, under the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA).
In 2005, Williams was one of two subjects of a book by Sister Helen Prejean, a Catholic nun and anti-death penalty activist. She contended that Williams could not have possibly committed the murder and was wrongfully convicted and executed. She believed that he had ineffective legal counsel; his lawyer was later disbarred for incompetence. She also notes that poor and minority people are disproportionately sentenced to death and executed in the United States criminal justice system.
An intruder entered the rural home of Herbert and Sonja Knippers in the early morning hours of July 8, 1984. He appeared to gain entry by stacking two milk crates outside the Knippers' bathroom window and cutting the screen. After Sonja entered the bathroom some time later, the attacker tried to rape her and began stabbing her with a knife.
Her husband Herbert unsuccessfully tried to break down the bathroom door during the attack. The intruder fled the scene through the bathroom window. Sonja opened the door on her own and was helped to a couch. She bled to death in their home. Herbert told investigators later that his wife was yelling that a black man was killing her.
Suspect and arrest
At the time of the murder, Dobie Gillis Williams was on a five-day furlough from Camp Beauregard, where he had been imprisoned for attempted simple burglary. He was allowed the visit because he was considered a model prisoner and not prone to violence. He was staying at his grandfather's home, approximately 0.4 mi (0.6 km) from the Knippers' residence.
Williams had been seen approximately an hour prior to the murder, walking away from his grandfather's house. As investigating detectives were aware of Williams' criminal record, they picked the man up for questioning. They allegedly told him they would be there until they "got what they wanted."
Williams was indicted for first degree murder by an grand jury for Sabine Parish. Exclusion of people of color from the grand jury violated Louisiana Revised Statute 14:30, as it compromises due process.
The prosecution said that a medical examination revealed scratches and abrasions on Williams' body that were consistent with the type of wounds that an individual might incur by quickly exiting through the Knippers' bathroom window, as they suggested he did.
Three police officers testified that Dobie confessed after questioning, but they had no recording of this. They said that he told the officers that after the stabbing he jumped out of the bathroom window, dropped the knife in the Knippers' yard, and ran to his grandfather's house, where he hid his shirt underneath the porch. The investigators returned to the Knippers' home, where they found a kitchen knife in 4 in. (2.5 cm) of damp grass. The officers later retrieved the shirt from where Williams hid it, but there was no blood or other forensic evidence on it. At the trial, several investigating detectives testified to the content of Williams' confession.
Forensic analysis of the crime scene confirmed that the blood found on the Knippers' bathroom window curtain matched Williams' blood type, one that is very rare among blacks. The analysis confirmed that the blood could not have come from either of the Knippers. Hair taken from the window was found to have characteristics consistent with Williams' hair.
Since the first trial, both of these types of evidence have been generally superseded by newer tests, particularly for DNA, that yield much more accurate results.
After a four-day jury trial, Williams was found guilty. At the sentencing phase of the trial, the jury unanimously recommended the death penalty, which the judge imposed.
Williams' case was appealed by Nick Trentacosta of the Louisiana Center for Equal Justice. He contends that Williams' execution was in error. During the appeals, a defense expert strongly criticized the prosecution's contention that Williams had gotten in and out through the bathroom window, as he would have had great difficulty getting through its 18" width.
The execution was twice stayed, once by the United States Supreme Court and once by the Louisiana governor. During the last appeal, the defense asked for DNA analysis of forensic evidence, as this was more accurate than previous tests. The state's lab said that DNA from blood on the curtain matched Williams'. The state refused to allow the defense to have their own tests conducted. But a defense team of forensic DNA analysts criticized the state's set of tests for the following reasons: sloppy technique, poor quality controls, and subjective interpretation. In one test, one in four controls failed, but the lab used the faulty results for its conclusions anyway.
A federal court judge overturned Williams' sentence, but the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals overruled, and the execution went forward. The 5th Circuit said that mitigating information had been introduced to a jury too late in the process, and upheld his sentence under the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA).
On January 8, 1999, Williams was executed by lethal injection at the Louisiana State Penitentiary. He ate twelve candy bars and some ice cream for his last meal. In his final statement, he said, "I just want to say, I don't have any hard feelings against anybody. God bless y'all. God bless."
In 2005, Williams was one of the subjects of Sister Prejean's book, The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions. She noted that the defense had been weak, failing to discuss his low IQ of 65, which is below the range establishing mental retardation (now referred to as intellectual disability). Such people may be suggestible and it may have contributed to his confessing to officers. The attorney also failed to discuss mitigating factors such as abuse in his childhood. His lawyer was later disbarred for incompetence.
The United States Supreme Court ruled in Atkins v. Virginia (2002) that it was unconstitutional for the death penalty to be imposed on persons with intellectual disability, but allowed states to set the standard by which condition would be determined.
In her book, Prejean noted that poor people and minorities were sentenced to death at a disproportionate rate, much higher than wealthier whites.
- Prejean, Helen (2005). The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions. New York: Random House. ISBN 0-679-44056-9.