Sister Helen Prejean’s Bogus Claims of “Innocents” Being Executed
MANY — DeSoto-Sabine District Attorney Don Burkett believes a newly released book that purports to be “an eyewitness account of wrongful executions,” including that of a Sabine Parish man, belongs on the fiction shelf of bookstores because of the many inaccuracies he says it contains.Prejean is, unfortunately, an example of a “true believer” who is so committed to her cause that she distorts facts to fit her agenda.
The book, The Death of Innocents, is Sister Helen Prejean’s second that deals with the death penalty in America. A Roman Catholic nun from Louisiana, Prejean first drew fame with her best selling book, Dead Man Walking, which was made into a movie featuring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn.
The Death of Innocents is Prejean’s account of two executions that she witnessed. Prejean believes both men — Dobie Gillis Williams of Many and Joseph O’Dell of Virginia — were innocent. Appeals courts and the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed.
“I don’t know whether she is deliberately trying to mislead the public or if she’s being mislead by others. But she’s wrong,” Burkett said of Prejean’s review of Williams’ case. The high profile case was Burkett’s capital murder trial after his election as district attorney in the fall of 1984.
Prejean did not sit in on Williams’ trial, and she did not interview Burkett prior to the December publication of the book.
Attempts to reach Prejean through an e-mail address posted on her Web site and at two California book stores where she had scheduled appearances Thursday and Friday were unsuccessful.
Court records dispute many of Prejean’s claims, Burkett said, specifically her assertion that Williams was mentally handicapped and had a low IQ of 65. Further, Burkett bristles at Prejean’s suggestion that an innocent man was executed.
“I respect her opinion of the death penalty and I’m not going to criticize her on that. But there are reasonable people who have different opinions on the death penalty,” Burkett said. “I don’t celebrate it . . . but in this case, the right thing was done and the right man was convicted. Any reasonable person familiar with the facts of this case knows that Dobie Gillis Williams committed this crime.”
An all-white jury convicted Williams, who was black, of first-degree murder in the July 1984 stabbing death of Sonya Knippers. He was hours away from execution in November 1998 when Burkett requested a delay to allow for DNA testing of a blood stain found on a curtain in the bathroom of the Knippers’ home. DNA testing was not as advanced when Williams was convicted.
After the DNA analysis concluded that the sample on the curtain matched Williams’ blood, a new execution date was set and Williams died by lethal injection on Jan. 8, 1999. Prejean and members of the Knippers family were witnesses.
He pleaded guilty to armed robbery and was sentenced to 15 years, but the conviction was thrown out because the state Supreme Court ruled that the sentencing judge did not give Williams all of his rights in the guilty plea.
He was then arrested on an attempted burglary charge, after a woman reported that a man had removed a screen from her window and was attempting to get inside. Williams was serving time on that charge in 1984 when he was released on a 48-hour furlough and broke into the Knippers’ residence.
Williams’ pattern of behavior up to Knippers’ slaying disproves Prejean’s statement in her book that he was “not prone to violence,” Burkett said.
Sonya Knippers’ husband, Herb, told police that he heard his wife scream from the bathroom “A black man is killing me.” He reached the locked bathroom door just as his wife was stumbling out. She died a short time later of multiple stab wounds to the upper part of her body.
Williams was arrested within hours at his grandfather’s house. He confessed to the murder in the presence of three officers, one of whom was a black officer, Burkett said. However, that tape malfunctioned and could not be used in court.
But Burkett stands by the evidence presented at the crime. Photographs show the visible scrape marks on Williams’ legs, which were used as proof that Williams sustained injury when jumping out of the small bathroom window of the Knippers’ home. Dr. George McCormick, a forensics pathologist, matched the scrape marks to the brick ledge.
“And a small piece of black pigmented skin found on that brick was consistent with the gouge on Williams’ leg,” Burkett said, adding there were also scrapes on his torso. “He was placed in the vicinity of the crime at the time of the crime by someone who knew him and saw him there.”
Prejean’s book questions that evidence. She includes a critique of an expert, Stuart Jones, who relied upon crime scene photos, trial testimony and court records to reach his opinions 14 years after the crime, said Williams could not have entered and exited through the small window that measured 11 inches high and 1 foot, 8 inches wide.
James also is critical of the blood stain found on the bathroom window’s curtain. It became critical when Williams’ execution was stalled to allow for further analysis.
Burkett selected the independent Dallas lab GeneScreen to do the analysis. Prejean criticized Burkett for not allowing Williams’ defense team to do its own study in a timely manner. When the defense finally got its hands on the raw test data, it sent it to two DNA experts who questioned the validity of the results and asked for more testing, which was denied.
GeneScreen concluded that the blood stain was a “one in almost 4 billion match” to Williams, Burkett said. “You can’t get past the blood in that bathroom. The only reason his blood was there was because he was in there.”
For Burkett, one of the more blatant errors in Prejean’s book is her claim that Williams was mentally retarded. Though Prejean doesn’t dwell on it, she states he had an IQ of 65, “well below the score of 70 that indicates mental retardation. . . . His low IQ forces him to play catch-up during most conversations, especially if he is in a group.”
An IQ score is important since less than two years after his execution, the Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional to kill a mentally disabled person.
Burkett said Prejean relies on the results of only one of the many intelligence tests that were administered to Williams over several years. “The one she is using says he is retarded . . . but the bottom line is that test is only an estimate. She doesn’t mention the other tests that were much more comprehensive that says he was of borderline intelligence, but not retarded.”
Williams scored an IQ of 65 on a Slosson Intelligence Test, a 10 to 20 minute test that serves as a quick estimate of general verbal ability. A 60 to 90 minute Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale-Revised Test, administered to Williams by the same doctor who did the Slosson test, indicates that Williams had a verbal IQ of 79, a performance IQ of 75 and a full scale IQ of 76. He had a reading and spelling level in excess of the 12th grade and a math level in the sixth grade.
“All of these scores are in the borderline range of intelligence,” wrote Mark Zinnerman, clinical psychologist, in report that was part of Williams’ post conviction hearing in August 1988.
Williams’ case takes up the first chapter of the Prejean’s book. Another centers on O’Dell. Other chapters deal with court rulings and constitutional arguments related to the death penalty.
Prejean calls the book the “beginning of a dialogue” that she hopes will engage the public in a discussion about the practice.
“I invite you to join me in the struggle to end the death penalty in the United States and around the world. Its practice demeans us all,” Prejean writes.
That’s all too typical of the anti-death penalty crowd.
There has been one instance when DNA testing was done to determine whether an executed man that death penalty opponents claimed was innocent really was. In that case, he was shown to be guilty.