The trial of Dobie Williams lasted one week, from selection of jury to guilty verdict to death sentence. Dobie was a Louisiana man, poor and black and with an IQ of sixty-five. He was convicted of the murder of a forty-three- year-old white woman who was stabbed to death in her bathroom. According to the prosecution, this lady called out helpfully, while being attacked, “A black man has killed me,” and when her husband rushed into the bathroom, she indicated, while dying, that the black man had gone out through a window so small and high up that the family had never bothered to put a lock on it. Betty Williams, the mother of the accused, commented, “That sounds like somebody in a murder mystery book.”
Dobie was on weekend leave from a detention center where he was serving a term for burglary. He seems to have been arrested because he was in the neighborhood. No motive was alleged for the crime, other than that Dobie had been drinking that evening. None of the blood of the dead woman was found on his person or his clothes. To explain this, the police suggested that Dobie had stripped naked to commit the murder. Because the victim’s clothes were pulled down—she was, after all, in the bathroom—it was insinuated that the accused had been attempting rape, though the victim had not in fact been raped and no such charge was brought. But the insinuation may have contributed to the jury’s speedy verdict.
Dobie was said to have confessed on tape, but the recording was missing by the time the case came to court, and the police officers who had overheard this “confession” gave conflicting evidence about it. Dobie was defended by an attorney later disbarred for unethical conduct, and as Sister Helen Prejean follows him on the long road to the execution chamber she explains how the failures and blunders at the original trial made it impossible for his later defenders to recover the ground lost.
Dobie went to death row in 1985 and was executed in 1999, by which time he had been given eleven separate execution dates, sometimes receiving a stay just hours before he was due to die. Is this torture? It is, by most people’s definition. In theory, the US Constitution does not permit it, but the Constitution is for human beings, and the system’s acknowledgment of Dobie’s humanity is scant. But he hangs on to a sense of his own dignity, refusing the grotesque ceremony of a last meal with prison staff: “When they finish eating they’re going to help kill me.” Sister Helen is horrified when she thinks of the cold-blooded ceremony to come:
Dobie is not in a hospital dying of some disease, with his life energies and faculties fading. He’s fully alive, has his full energy and emotions and consciousness. It makes his coming death impossible to comprehend.
In the room adjacent to the execution chamber, where he receives his…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.