Controversial docudrama grapples with the Atlanta child murders

Four years ago, Abby Mann sat in an Atlanta courtroom and thought he saw a man being made the sacrificial lamb to a city in crisis. The city was Atlanta. The man was Wayne B. Williams. And the trial was at the heart of the effort to close the books on the worst string of crimes in that city's history.

Now, Mann has written and co-produced, with a distinguished company of actors and director John Erman, The Atlanta Child Murders (CBS, Sunday, Feb. 10, 8-10 p.m. and Tuesday, Feb. 12, 8-11 p.m.), an attempt to spell out in five hours of docudrama the whole painful skein of social and political crisis that gripped that city for two years.

It is a remarkable effort. It succeeds in following the emotional riptide of events during the investigation and in probing deeply into the nightmares of urban poverty and injustice. But it raises serious questions about the writer's faithfulness to the facts in the case. And it occasionally becomes gruesome in the telling.

The miniseries strongly implies that Wayne Williams, portrayed here with an almost eerie ease by Calvin Levels, was railroaded. Williams was convicted of only two murders of adults, but was branded by police and the media as the killer of 24 of the 30 children and young men murdered between July 1979 and May 1981. The film suggests he was the scapegoat of the city's black administration struggling to gain credibility in the midst of the unprecedented crime wave. In doing so, it questions the legal methods used in prosecuting the case -- methods now being debated at places like Harvard Law School and on the front pages of newspapers like the Washington Post.

Even critics of the film acknow- ledge that well before its airing, it has already brought public attention to unanswered questions about those murders.

Abby Mann is not alone in questioning the handling of the case. Two judges on the Georgia Supreme Court -- one of whom later recanted his opinion -- felt that the conviction should be overturned because the prosecution improperly introduced other homicides into evidence, which it claimed were related to this case, and because the evidence based on fibers found on the victims' bodies was wrongly applied. The conviction stands, however, and the actual Atlanta child murders have never been brought to trial.

Hence, Mann's self-stated ``crusade'' to see justice done.

Did this ``crusade'' lead Mann -- who won an Academy Award for his screenplay for ``Judgment at Nuremberg'' and an Emmy nomination for ``King,'' the miniseries biography of the slain civil rights leader -- to distort the facts in the case?

Several of the victims' mothers say the program contains inaccuracies. A number of Atlanta civic leaders, including Mayor Andrew Young and the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, claim that the film presents a distorted picture of the city. After a meeting with these leaders, CBS has agreed to run a disclaimer stating that the film ``is not a documentary, but a drama based on certain facts surrounding the murder and disappearance of the children in Atlanta between 1979 and 1981. Some of the events and characters are fictionalized for dramatic purposes.''

``I was tremendously objective, sometimes too objective,'' Mr. Mann protested during an interview recently. ``People are using the fact that I was on a crusade as a weapon against me.''

Mann might have known he was walking into a mine field when he undertook a docudrama of this nature. The blend of fact and theater makes for a particularly volatile mixture under any circumstances, even where strong emotional forces aren't already loaded into the subject matter. And those forces have seethed in Atlanta for several years.

Mothers of the victims have felt, according to their public statements, that the city never bothered to solve these cases. Disaffected Atlanta police figures -- such as Chet Dettlinger, who is a character in the film and was a paid consultant on the project -- have made strong and continuing protests about the handling of the cases. The Rev. Mr. Lowery repeated in an interview his conviction that Wayne Williams was not the sole killer.

Into this background, Mann has introduced a powerfully acted retelling of the story, using the considerable skills of people like Gloria Foster and Jason Robards.

He has also introduced material of questionable authenticity in his search for ``the spirit'' of the case. Mr. Dettlinger is represented in the film, for instance, as accompanying a flotation expert to a river to plot the probable course of a body through the currents, although he now says in an interview that he was never there. Composite characterization is used. Dialogue is re-created from the memories of people who may or may not have been on the scene at the time.

Executive producer Gerald M. Rafshoon defends this approach, saying in a telephone interview, ``We were very meticulous in our research and being able to document what we say.'' CBS argues that it forced Mann to strengthen the case of the prosecution, which comes sharply in question here.

But if we are improving the case of either side, are we really dealing in something factual here?

It seems, on the contrary, that CBS and Mann have created a a one-sided fictionalized account of a national tragedy. That they have been creative in the execution of it is to their credit. The decision to label this, however ambiguously, as fiction is also to their credit.

But the impact of television, and the sheer weight of five hours of heavyweight drama, will leave a lasting impression in people's minds about the parents, the victims, the prosecutors, the city of Atlanta.

That is unfortunate. Because even if it fails to portray the incredible series of events in Atlanta with pinpoint accuracy, this docudrama stands as a serious attempt to grapple with the vulnerability of poor black children in cities and the blind, mechanical nature of urban justice.

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