Sister Helen Prejean makes no secret of why she penned the Death of Innocents. The book’s page count is still in Roman numerals when Prejean writes that she hopes that those reading about her account of the death penalty will be “set on fire” – consumed with a zeal to fight, what she calls, the “spirit of vengeance” that dominates the hearts and minds of Americans who support state executions.
Sister Helen Prejean was a little-known Roman Catholic nun from Louisiana when in 1993, her first book Dead Man Walking, challenged the way we look at the death penalty in America. It became a #1 New York Times bestseller and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.
Now in The Death of Innocents, she takes us to the new moral edge of the debate on capital punishment: What if we’re killing the wrong man?
Dobie Gillis Williams, an indigent black man from rural Louisiana with an IQ of 65, was accused of a brutal rape and murder. William’s inept defense counsel, later disbarred for unethical practice for unrelated cases, allowed the prosecution’s incredibly contrived scenario of the crime to go unchallenged. Less than two years after William’s execution in January 1999, the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to kill a man so mentally disabled.
In 1986, Joseph Roger O’Dell was convicted of murder in Virginia despite highly circumstantial evidence from a jail-house snitch, who later recanted his testimony.
Both were executed in spite of numerous appeals. Sister Prejean watched both of them die.As she recounts these men’s cases and takes us through their terrible last moments, Prejean brilliantly dismantles the legal and religious arguments that have been used to justify the death penalty. Riveting, moving, and ultimately damning, The Death of Innocents is a book we dare not ignore.
When 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 January 8, 1999, at 1:00 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 had eleven execution dates since 1985 and close calls in June and November when the state came within a couple of hours of killing him but had to call it off because of last-minute stays of execution. I feel this is it, they’re going to get Dobie this time, and I’m praying for courage for him and for his mama and for me, too. I’ve done this four other times, accompanying men to execution, first with Patrick Sonnier in 1984,1 walking through this very room on his way to the electric chair, and here we are sitting with Dobie, hoping against hope he won’t have to make that walk through this room tonight. His execution by lethal injection is scheduled for 6:30. About five hours to go.
Dobie’s death is set to conclude a story that began more than fourteen years before, in the early morning hours of July 8, 1984. It was then that forty-three-year-old Sonja Merritt Knippers was stabbed to death as she sat on the toilet in her bathroom in Many, Louisiana, 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 one hundred thousand 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 thirty-eight 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.
- Basement Songs: “Dead Man Walking” (popdose.com)
- Books About Prison That Will Make You Rethink the United States Penal System (redantliberationarmy.wordpress.com)
- Innocent Death of Troy Davis (socyberty.com)
- Georgia parole board rejects appeal for Troy Davis (telegraph.co.uk)
- Georgia death row inmate denied clemency despite recanted testimonies (news.nationalpost.com)
- How Many Innocents Have To Die Before We Get Honest About The Death Penalty? (crooksandliars.com)
- Death Penalty: Pro Con? Or Against ‘Em? (nrhatch.wordpress.com)
- No innocent person should ever be executed (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Green Party demands Georgia stop execution of Troy Davis, urge abolition of the death penalty (wilderside.wordpress.com)
- “Civilized society demands the death penalty” (sentencing.typepad.com)
- US Killer To Be Executed After Appeal Fails (news.sky.com)