TV show on Atlanta youth murders revives controversy on case. City officials charge `inaccuracies,' but critics decry 1983 trial methods
Atlanta — As she rode through Atlanta's rush-hour traffic one day this week, a black mother asked a question that still bothers many Atlantans -- a question raised anew by the scheduled televising this Sunday of a documdrama about the 1983 trial of Wayne Williams for the murder of two young blacks: ``I wonder if he did all that?''
``All that'' was a total of 29 homicides of young blacks in 1979, '80, and '81.
Critics of the official handling of the case point out that the killings did not stop with the conviction of Williams. Prosecutors, closing the books on 22 of the 27 remaining murders, said they, too, were the work of Williams.
What did stop was the killing of very young blacks, in their early teens or younger, according to an examination of Atlanta police homicide records by this newspapeR.
Actually, Williams was convicted for killing two adults -- 21 and 27 years old. Six of the murders under special investigation were of victims 20 or older, up to age 28. And murders of blacks in this age group continues, homicide records show. Prosecutors point out, however, that the method most commonly used against the 29 victims, asphyxiation, now occurs only infrequently.
Some of the techniques used to convict Williams, specifically introduction of allegedly similar murders into the trial without charging the defendant with committing them, are controversial and have become a national issue, says Emory University law Prof. Abraham Ordover, an expert in trial techniques and evidence.
The CBS fictional drama, titled ``The Atlanta Child Murders,'' is being aired just as the networks scramble for higher audience ratings upon which advertising charges are based.
Many Atlanta officials and other key civic leaders reacted quickly and critically after seeing an advance showing of the CBS drama. The City Council passed a resolution condemning the program as having ``damaging inaccuracies.'' They charged it ``greatly transgresses the bounds of decency and fair play.''
Dissenting council member John Lewis, however, asked: ``Are we really concerned about the children of this city or are we concerned about the city's image and whether we will lose tourists. If people don't want to watch it, let them turn their TVs off.''
City officials have not made any apparent effort to study renewed criticism of their handling of the case to see if there could be any improvements in future responses to such tragedies. But critics say there are lessons to be learned from the case for use elsewhere.
CBS agreed to air a disclaimer saying that the program ``is not a documentary, but a drama'' in which ``some of the events and characters are fictionalized for dramatic purposes.''
In a Monitor interview, Joe Drolet, one of the prosecutors in the Williams case, said selective use in the docudrama of parts of the trial transcript is misleading.
But, at least locally, debate continues over the legal methods used to win a conviction in the case without eyewitnesses or establishment of a motive.
It was three years ago this month that Williams, a young black man, was convicted for two of the 29 killings that came under investigation. He was 23 at time of his arrest in 1981. (A 30th young black disappeared in the same time period and has not been found).
Joseph Lowery, head of the Atlanta-based Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the civil rights group here once headed by the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., says: ``I'm not convinced Wayne Williams was on his own guilty of all those murders.''
The local district attorney, Lewis Slaton, said before the arrest of Williams that there were probably ``eight to 10'' killers involved, and that half the murders did not fit a pattern. Mr. Slaton told the Monitor this week that at least 12 of the cases do fit the pattern.
The Williams verdict upheld by the Georgia Supreme Court. Lynn Whatley, Williams's attorney, is expected to take the appeal to the federal courts. Meanwhile, Williams is serving two life terms for first-degree murder in the state prison at Jackson, Ga.
Monitor interviews with a member of the prosecution team; the co-authors of ``The List,'' a nonfiction book critical of the official handling of the case; and other experts produced the following observations:
1. The investigation.
``It was one of the most thorough investigations in the history of the country,'' says Mr. Drolet. FBI agents aided the local police.
But the local task force work was ``an atrocity,'' says Jeff Prugh, coauthor of ``The List.'' He contends that inexperienced people were answering the task force hot line and deciding what information was important, and that some evidence was destroyed at crime scenes because of faulty handling by police.
The other author of the book, Chet Dettling, former Atlanta police official and consultant to the defense, claims police wasted valuable months investigating leads all over the city, rather than focusing along about a dozen streets where he says the victims either lived or were last seen, or where their bodies were found. ``The victims had to know each other,'' he claims. Wayne Williams's name might have turned up sooner if more attention had been paid to the links between victims, claims Mr. Dettlinger.
Mr. Prugh, former Atlanta bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, says the police investigation turned up three eyewitnesses to the murder of Clifford Jones, one of the victims whose case was closed and linked to Williams by the prosecution after the trial. But the person the eyewitnesses claimed to have seen, a black male, was not Williams, Prugh says, citing files made available to the defense by the state.
Drolet says there was only one, unreliable witness.
2. Use of patterns in the trial.
Two things convicted Williams, says Emory Professor Ordover: one was his behavior on the witness stand. He ``kept changing his story,'' says Ordover. ``He became very angry on the stand. He became more and more unpleasant.''
The other thing that hurt Williams, says Ordover, was that the prosecution contended to the jury that he also killed 10 other people. ``The introduction of such evidence is prejudicial,'' he says.
Use of such a legal tactic is becoming more common, he says. ``It's a national problem; it's getting worse all the time,'' he complains.
Ordover also says, ``I don't think there's any pattern at all. These all seem to be individual crimes. There may not be a mass killer.'' Prugh and Dettlinger also claim there was no pattern. They say numerous other young, black males and females (there were two females on the task force list of victims) of roughly the same description were murdered during the two-year period.
Drolet says the pattern included the fact that the victims were young, black, males, poor, from broken homes, showing no signs of a struggle in most cases, and most were asphixiated. He says that pattern ended with the arrest of Wayne Williams.
The use of pattern evidence put the defense at another disadvantage, says Prugh. They were given little advance notice, he says, of which of the other murders would be cited in court in addition to the two for which Williams was tried. Nor was the defense given much advance notice of which of many expert witnesses would be called on, he says.
3. Use of fiber evidence.
Lacking eyewitnesses and a clearly established motive, the prosecution depended heavily on evidence showing that fibers found on some victims matched some samples of fibers of personal property of Williams. Use of fiber evidence in trials is no longer unusual, but the Williams trial ``goes about as far as any case has gone in basing a case on fiber analysis,'' says Edward J. Imwinkelried, a professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis.
Fiber evidence can be more reliable than even eyewitnesses, he says. But, he adds, there are ``alarming levels of misanalysis by crime labs in the country'' and ``there are certainly dangers in fiber evidence -- especially if both sides don't do their homework.''
Several sources familiar with the case told the Monitor the defense on fiber evidence was not anywhere near as thorough as the prosecution's presentation.