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Thursday, May 28, 2020

Associated Press

Relatives of Sonja Merritt Knippers, the woman Dobie Gillis Williams killed 14 years ago, met the news of his latest stay of execution quietly.

"Their reaction was really no reaction," said prison warden Burl Cain. "They're certainly waiting for justice to go forth."
Williams, however, reacted with a broad grin. According to his spiritual adviser, Sister Helen Prejean, Williams polished off part of what was to have been his last meal, then raked the rest into a styrofoam carton to
share with fellow inmates on death row at the Louisiana State Penitentiary.
For stabbing Mrs. Knippers to death in 1984, Williams was to have died by lethal injection at about 8:30 p.m. Thursday. The U.S. Supreme Court called it off with less than 3 hours to spare.
The justices gave no reasons and the prosecutor in northwestern Louisiana's Sabine Parish, where the murder occurred, said it was likely because they were deluged with legal arguments on the day before
the execution.
"It was a classic example of the defense attorneys for Williams sandbagging the court at the last minute," Don Burkett said in a telephone interview. "I think the court felt like they had to err on the
side of caution."
Attorney Nick Trenticosta, part of the legal team fighting the execution, saw it differently.
"The entire court issued the stay. Why? Because we presented to the court some very important questions of law that they had not yet decided. They have not yet decided if they will accept the case, but
they have decided to study the case further," Trenticosta said.
Burkett and Trenticosta both said it is unlikely the high court will act on the case before next fall.
In all, Williams, 38, has received 10 stays of execution since his 1985 trial.
That he would really be executed this time seemed so certain that several of his relatives, who have shunned media attention, journeyed across the state to be at the remote southeastern Louisian prison. The
victim's husband and son were to witness the death.
Prejean, the anti-death penalty activist and author of "Dead Man Walking," had spent much of the day with Williams. He also visited with his mother and several other of his relatives.
Prosecutors said Williams broke into the Knippers home in the town of Many while on a prison furlough during the 4th of July weekend.
He stole a knife from the kitchen while Mrs. Knippers, who was 43, watched television in the living room and her husband slept in the bedroom.
Williams waited in the bathroom. When Mrs. Knippers came in, he stabbed her 8 times in the back as she screamed and her husband tried in vain to open the locked door, Burkette said.
After Williams crawled out of the bathroom window, Mrs. Knippers unlocked the door and fell forward as her husband opened it. She drowned in her blood after he carried her to the sofa, Burkett said.
Because prosecutors found Williams' skin scrapings on the window, they believe he was not wearing pants when he crawled out and he had tried unsuccessfully to rape Mrs. Knippers.
There was no immediate word from the Supreme Court on the reasons for the latest stay. Issues raised in the latest appeals included allegations that Williams had an ineffective lawyer during the penalty phase of his trial; whether a new death penalty law that puts a tougher burden on the defense was in effect; whether jury instructions were properly given during the penalty phase; and a challenge on the racial makeup of the grand jury that indicted Williams. Thursday night, Prejean rejoiced with Williams' mother and other relatives at the prison gates.
"I don't believe that he killed that woman and God's going to set him free," said Williams' uncle, Ira Williams.