To name all defendants Innocent Until Proven Guilty is a beloved tradition, and an ethical one, at least so long as the pontificating guardians of the reputations and feelings of criminals are willing to let it go once their clients have, in fact, been proven guilty.
Yet this is almost never the case. Defense attorneys express a touching faith in the wisdom of the public and juries . . . until precisely the moment a guilty verdict is reached. Then, like lovers scorned, they denounce everything about their former paramours: their intelligence, their morals, their identities, their actions, their collective and individual races. All are fodder for the endless second act of criminal justice: the post-conviction appeal.
It’s never over, as victims know, particularly when it comes to notorious defendants. In the weird rubric of prisoner advocacy, the most heinous criminals attract the loudest cries for reconsideration. Attention-seeking activists and lawyers seize on the worst of the worst to prove their own superior compassion, or to thumb their noses at society in the biggest way. And so the garden-variety mugger must line up behind the child murderers and serial rapists.
Susan Sarandon won’t be playing your religious confessor in the Hollywood version of your life if all you did was steal a few cars, no matter how badly you feel about having done it afterwards. Rape and murder a few kids, though, and she might come calling.
And that brings us to Wayne Williams. Thanks to the notoriety of the Atlanta Child Murders (at least those Atlanta child murders), Williams possesses all the best in serial killer accessories: a team of lawyers laboring (on our dime) to endlessly re-try his case; internet nuts issuing manifestos that nobody can ever really know if anybody is ever really guilty; miniseries and media attentions, breathless stories about DNA testing that disappear from the news when they fail to exonerate, and so on.
The thirty dead children and young men identified as possible ACM victims are themselves a mere accessory to Williams’ drama. The police continue to seek the killer or killers of several of these victims. They are (literally) damned if they do and damned if they don’t, as they were throughout the terrible period when children kept turning up dead, but they do it anyway, because the police are tasked to behave professionally despite the unprofessional nature of the accusations hurled their way.
There are probably police serving in metro Atlanta today who were children in southeast and southwest Atlanta neighborhoods at the time when the murders took place. Did that experience inspired them to become officers?
Few serious books have been written about the Atlanta Child Murders. There is The List by Chet Dettlinger and Jeff Prugh, and an interesting academic study by Bernard Headley, The Atlanta Youth Murders and the Politics of Race. Now there is a third, The Atlanta Child Murders: The Night Stalker, written by the prosecutor who proved Williams’ guilt, Jack Mallard.
The Atlanta Journal Constitution ran an interview with Mallard this week. It is strangely contentious: the reporter seems to be more interest in arguing with Mallard over Williams’ guilt than asking him questions about his book:
Between 1979 and 1981, 30 young African-Americans between ages 9 and 28 were either killed or declared missing in what was known as the “Atlanta Child Murders” case. The victims’ bodies were found in wooded lots, vacant buildings or the Chattahoochee River.
Williams received a life sentence 28 years ago this month for killing two of the victims, but he was implicated in at least a dozen others. He has said for years that he’s innocent. The doubt that shrouded the case has fueled articles and books by people who still question whether Williams was the sole killer.
Well, not really. That’s not the question the keeps popping up in appeal after appeal for Williams. Williams’ advocates are specifically actually arguing that he is innocent of the two crimes for which he was convicted.
Oddly, the reporter interviewing Mallard tells readers to “Judge for yourself,” presumably regarding Williams’ guilt. What an odd way to begin an interview with the prosecutor in a settled case:
Now, finally, Mallard has heeded the urgings of others and weighed in with his new book, “The Atlanta Child Murders: the Night Stalker.” Though a bit pedantic, the book lays out the prosecution’s strategy, from presentation of evidence to cross-examinations. Here, Mallard, 75 and retired, talks about guilt, doubt and closure. Judge for yourself.
Q: Reading this book, it almost feels as though you’re retrying the case right there in the courtroom. But in writing this did you look back and see things you might have done differently or mistakes you might have made?
Ah yes, he is a prosecutor who successfully convicted someone, so he must have been making mistakes. Nobody ever challengingly demands of defense attorneys whether they made mistakes.
A: As a longtime prosecutor, what I would do is map out a trial plan, like writing a screenplay; everybody has a part. If you work up the right trial plan, then you expect things to go as you planned it. This trial went according to plan.
Well, we can’t have that, can we? It sounds as if Mallard simply stands by the verdict.
Q: You relied heavily on verbatim testimony for dialogue in this book and you included a few updates. But why didn’t you talk with any of Williams’ original defense attorneys, at least those who are still around?
A: I knew it wouldn’t serve any purpose. [They’ve] always thought that Wayne was innocent.
In other words, verbatim testimony just isn’t verbatim enough, Mr. Mallard: you should have gone to the other side and given them a platform to call you a liar. Because, of course, they do that for you whenever they climb onto their soapbox, don’t they? No? Well, you should do it anyway.
Q: Williams was basically convicted on the basis of carpet fibers and dog hairs found on the victims, which you argued could only have come from Williams or his home. There are still doubting Thomases out there who think the fiber and hair evidence was suspect in some way. Do you think you finally assuaged any doubt about that evidence with the book?
A: Yes, and I think I mention in [the book], had cameras been allowed in the courtroom — you can look at these fibers and compare them in living color in photographs like the jury did — people would really not be suspicious as to whether or not you can identify a fiber.
Q: Yes, but there are still doubters out there, some who’ve suggested that maybe the fibers were somehow planted or inadvertently transferred by a lab technician in the case.
A: Well, you either believe in law enforcement and scientists or you don’t. What you read on the Internet, that’s not evidence. That’s not tested in a court of law. So much of it that is completely fiction.
Q: OK then, consider me a doubter . . .
Wow. That pretty much speaks for itself. And here’s what it is saying: I’m a partisan for the defense, inappropriately assigned to challenge you and your crazy “guilty verdict” ideas. Next, due to my biases, I’m going to get the legal issue completely wrong:
Q: OK then, consider me a doubter, because after reading your book, I could see how he could have committed more than half of the 30 killings that were investigated as part of the case. But there were at least five cases that just didn’t seem to fit, in particular the killing of the two little girls, Angel Lanier and LaTonya Wilson. All the other cases involved boys and young men. Do you think he killed the two girls?
A: No, no, no. The two girls should never have been on the list. There was no scientific evidence at all, no trace evidence linking them to Wayne Williams. There’s 25 of them that had trace evidence to Wayne Williams.
There were 25 dead youths and boys linked to Williams through the evidence. The state tried the two strongest cases. They investigated the h*ll out of those murders, using federal money and assistance. In the end, they could not try every case. That is a function of the pricey mess the defense bar has managed to make of rules of evidence and criminal procedure. When you destroy the very meaning of seeking the truth with all available evidence, you make it financially and pragmatically impossible to convict murderers like Williams for every offense. So the state did what they had to do, convicted him of the two strongest cases, and closed the ones in which they were confident that he was the killer.
The inclusion of girls on the highly politicized victim “List” has nothing to do with Williams’ guilt. As Mallard points out, he does not believe they should have been on that particular list in the first place.
Q: Well what about the other five? What do we do with them?
A: They’re still open. If one day there’s ever any evidence, even the girls, they potentially can be cleared. It happens all the time.
Q: Was Wayne Williams your most formidable opponent?
A: He probably was in the sense that he was the lengthiest cross-examination. He was on the stand about three days. He was prepared and he was smart and he was hard to pin down. But he kept contradicting himself and the jury saw right through it. He probably cooked his own goose by taking the stand.
Q: Do you think your book will help the victims’ families heal, or will it just upset them?
A: I don’t think it will hurt, but the families I really feel for. They’ve been used by the defense in the support of Williams in his appeals. When victims’ families are supporting the defense, that’s somewhat unusual.
Q: Have you talked with any of them in the years since the trial?
A: No, I haven’t kept up with them.
Q: Ever visit the grave sites of any of the victims?
A: No. I don’t like graveyards.
Mallard comes across as somebody who did his job, didn’t suffer fools, and doesn’t play romanticized games with serious issues like child murder. How refreshing.
Q: You make a direct appeal in the book to Williams, imploring him to confess to the killings. Have you heard from him?
Q: Why did you make that appeal to him?
A: Well, if he wants to do something to help humanity he could do it by helping these mothers settle in their own minds that the killer is not still out there. He knows there’s nobody else out there.
Now, back to the irrelevant questions about the victims who weren’t linked to Williams:
Q: Is it possible that somebody else could have been responsible for the remaining five deaths we talked about earlier?
A: It’s possible, because we don’t have any direct evidence connecting Williams to them. Those, I would say, we don’t know.
Q: Will you write another book? You’ve been involved in several other high-profile cases that could be good reads.
A: Several cases would make good writing, but I’m not sure I want to get into that again. I want to enjoy the remaining years I have.
By, like, not being repeatedly pummeled by inaccurate gotcha’s by a reporter who doesn’t bother to have her facts straight.
Angel Lanier and LaTonya Wilson’s murders were, of course, not irrelevant. Nor were the murders of other youths who met violent ends in the same time and place. One of the many tragedies of the ACM controversy is that Lanier, Wilson, and other victims are still being used by the media and various activists to advance other agendas. It’s clear that the AJC reporter mentions these murdered girls only to attempt to poke holes in Williams’ conviction for the uptenth time. Why doesn’t somebody revisit the girls’ lives, and deaths, as if they themselves mattered?
Why are we continuing to obsess over Wayne Williams at all, when we should be talking about child prostitution, an ongoing crisis that created the conditions in which young adults and children were extremely vulnerable to predators like Wayne Williams thirty years ago?
Child prostitution, or, better, child-and-youth sexual exploitation, is the great unspoken subtext of the Atlanta Child Murders story. Not all the victims were involved in trading money for sex, but many reportedly were. And when a community accepts, or cannot stop, such behavior, every child is in danger.
That’s the point of H.B. 582/S.B. 304, the important Georgia child prostitution prevention bill sponsored by Sen. Renee Unterman (R-Buford). Thirty years after so many youths lost their lives on city streets where the existence of a wild west “sex trade” drew predators targeting both boys and girls, it’s far past time to leave Wayne Williams to rot in prison and turn our attention to preventing similar murders in the future.
Go to this site to learn how to support the legislation.