Sister Helen Prejean and Dobie Gillis Williams at Louisiana State Penitentiary, ca. 1991.
Sister Helen Prejean has made it her mission to work against the death penalty, which she believes is both morally wrong and unconstitutional. The Roman Catholic nun, made famous by the book and film Dead Man Walking, has accompanied six men to their executions, as their spiritual adviser.
Hear a 1993 Interview with Prejean
In a new book, The Death of Innocents, Prejean tells the stories of two men whom she believes were wrongly convicted and put to death.
In an interview with NPR's Melissa Block, Prejean discusses the case of one of them, Dobie Gillis Williams. Williams was executed in 1999 for the 1984 stabbing of Sonja Knippers, in Many, La.
The prosecutor in the case stands by the conviction, saying the evidence of Williams' guilt was overwhelming.
Following is an excerpt from The Death of Innocents by Sister Helen Prejean.
Book Excerpt: 'The Death of Innocents'
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.
Earlier today, Warden Burl Cain asked Dobie if he wanted to be rolled to the death chamber in a wheelchair. "Dobie, we'll do it your way, any way you want, so if you want the wheelchair, we'll do that. It might make it easier on you, but if you want to walk, I mean that's okay, too, no matter how long it takes. We'll just go at your pace. If it takes a half hour, whatever it takes, it's up to you, you can have it your way, like at Burger King, have it your way, and we'll do anything you want to do."
Dobie narrowed his eyes. "No way. I'll walk."
Later he says, "Man! Is he crazy? Let them people use a wheelchair on me? Man! No way. No way."
The wheelchair is a sensitive issue. When Dobie got rheumatoid arthritis five years ago, his proud, fit body left him. Some of the guys on the Row started calling him "stiff," and when they'd see a crippled person on TV, there'd be snickers as somebody yelled out, "Who does that remind you of?" Dobie would be silent in his cell.
"I just ignore them," he'd tell me.
I notice how fast and soft and friendly the warden talks to Dobie. Of course he wants Dobie to use the wheelchair. I can tell he wants the process to go quickly so he and the Tactical Unit—the team responsible for the physical details of killing Dobie—can get it over with as soon as possible. Dobie, it is turning out, is proving difficult in several ways. There had been the last-minute stays of execution in June and November, which meant that the Tac team, Mrs. Knippers's family members, the executioner, the support staff, the medical staff, and the ambulance crew that removes the body—all these people had to come back and go through it again, which is hard on everybody. Plus, Dobie rejected the offer to eat his final meal with Warden Cain as two other executed prisoners had done. That must have felt like a slap in the face, because the warden felt he was doing his best to show Christian fellowship to these men before they died.
Excerpted from The Death of Innocents by Sister Helen Prejean Copyright © 2005 by Helen Prejean. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.