Wayne Williams Trial: 1981
Wayne Williams Trial: 1981
Defendant: Wayne B. Williams
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: Alvin Binder and Mary Welcome
Chief Prosecutors: Joseph Drolat, Jack Mallard, and Lewis Slaton
Judge: Clarence Cooper
Place: Atlanta, Georgia
Dates of Trial: December 28, 1981-February 27, 1982
Sentence: Life imprisonment
SIGNIFICANCE: The trial of the man suspected of being America's worst child-killer was bound to generate immense attention. But did it produce a just verdict?
Beginning in 1979 an unprecedented wave of killings struck Atlanta, Georgia. Over the next two years upwards of 20 young black males were found murdered. In the early hours of May 21, 1981, police staking out the Chattahoochee River, one of the killer's favorite dumping grounds for his victims, spotted a station wagon on a bridge. The driver, Wayne Williams, was questioned but allowed to leave. Two days later, the body of Nathaniel ("Nate") Cater was dragged from the river. Although forensic evidence connected Williams, a 23-year-old black homosexual music promoter, with many of the Atlanta killings, he was charged on only two counts.
Williams' trial began December 28, 1981. Following an adjournment for the holidays, testimony got under way on January 6, 1982. District Attorney Lewis Slaton likened the Atlanta killings to a "jigsaw puzzle with a whole lot of little pieces fitting in." Chief defense counsel Alvin Binder preferred to highlight Williams' solid family background, insisting to the jury: "You don't get a killer from a boy who was raised like this."
Officer Fred Jacobs, part of the surveillance team watching the Chattahoochee River, testified to seeing a station wagon "drive very slowly" across the bridge, moments after hearing a loud splash.
The story was taken up by FBI Special Agent Gregg Gulliland. After being stopped, Williams had given conflicting reasons for being on the bridge, then blurted out, "What's all this about? … I know. This is about those boys, isn't it?"
Challenging the defendant's claim that he had not known either victim, Margaret Carter, an acquaintance of Cater's, stated, "I saw Nate sitting on the bench in the park … with another fellow." She identified Williams as that man.
Prosecutors Use Microscopic Analysis
But it was the forensic evidence that really undid Williams. Microanalyst Larry Peterson had compared fibers and dog hairs found on the bodies of Cater and second victim Jimmy Ray Payne with examples taken from Williams' house, car, and German shepherd. "In my opinion," said Peterson, "it is highly unlikely any other environment other than that present in Williams' home and car could account for the combination of fibers and hairs I recovered from Mr. Cater and Mr. Payne."
Under cross-examination from Binder, Peterson acknowledged that there was no absolute scientific means of determining the origin of any fiber, and that identification was a subjective judgment on the part of the examiner.
Evidence of Williams' aggressive homosexuality came from two young men who testified that he had made unwanted advances toward them.
Williams Takes the Stand
Other than attack the credibility of prosecution witnesses, there was little the defense could do, except present Williams himself. Describing himself as a "carefree, happy-go-lucky person," Williams went on, "I haven't killed anybody, or thought about it, or plan on thinking about killing anybody."
Assistant prosecutor Jack Mallard pressed Williams on his reasons for being out at 3:00 a.m. Williams said he was searching for the address of a singer with whom he was to meet in the morning. Mallard wondered why he had not asked for directions.
"Me being in Cobb County at three o'clock in the morning?" Williams sounded incredulous. "Sir, they've got the Ku Klux Klan up there'."
Mallard pounced. "If you're so afraid of the Ku Klux Klan, what are you doing in Cobb County at three o'clock in the morning?"
Williams hurriedly mumbled an excuse but soon recovered his composure, insisting loudly, "Sir, I haven't killed anyone!"
The expected lengthy jury deliberation actually took less than 12 hours. On February 27, 1982, Williams was convicted of double murder. That same day, Judge Clarence Cooper imposed two consecutive life terms.
In the years following his conviction, Wayne Williams has maintained his innocence. His conviction ended any further investigation into the murders of the 22 other victims. Since the conviction, Williams has gained support from many unlikely people, including relatives of some of the victims, former investigators who worked on the cases, and even a retired Georgia State Supreme Court justice.
Many of his supporters question the wisdom of closing the cases of all the victims based on Williams's conviction on only two counts of murder. They also dispute the contention that the murders ended with his arrest and incarceration.
Williams continues to fight for a new trial. Bloodstains found in his car could have come from the two victims. New advances using DNA testing could prove conclusively if the blood matches the DNA of the victims. Thus far, many requests to have the bloodstains analyzed have been denied.
—Colin Evans and
Suggestions for Further Reading
Baldwin, James. The Evidence Of Things Not Seen. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1985.
Fischer, Mary A. "Was Wayne Williams Framed?" Gentlemen's Quarterly (April 1991): 228ff.
Koltz, Charles. "The Atlanta Murders." New Jersey Law Journal (December 3, 1981): l1 ff.
Wilson, Colin and Donald Seaman. Encylopedia of Modern Murder. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1983.
"Wayne Williams Trial: 1981." Great American Trials. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 16, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/law/law-magazines/wayne-williams-trial-1981
"Wayne Williams Trial: 1981." Great American Trials. . Retrieved March 16, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/law/law-magazines/wayne-williams-trial-1981
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