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A Web of Fiber and Fact

6 minute read
Walter Isaacson

Wayne Williams is convicted of two Atlanta murders

The verdict was swift and harsh. “We the jury find the defendant Wayne Bertram Williams guilty on count number one… guilty on count number two,” said Foreman Sandra Laney, a cable television worker in Atlanta, after the jury had deliberated only eleven hours. Williams, who had managed his own radio station at age 16 and gone on to become a failed music promoter and freelance photographer, was, at 23, a convicted killer. Surrounded by four sheriffs deputies who have guarded him since the trial began last December, Williams stared silently as Judge Clarence Cooper sentenced him to two consecutive life sentences for the murders of Nathaniel Cater, 27, and Jimmy Ray Payne, 22.

Cater and Payne were two of the victims in a string of 29 apparently related strangulations and knifings of young blacks in Atlanta. That epidemic of killings terrorized the city for 22 months and prompted the wearing of green ribbons around the nation as a symbol of concern. Williams has been implicated in a dozen of the murders. With his arrest last June, after one of the most extensive police investigations in U.S. history, the deaths came to an end.

Williams has consistently protested that he is not the killer. “I maintained all along through this trial my innocence and still do so today,” he told the judge after hearing of his conviction. “I hold no malice against the jury, the prosecutors or the court. I hope the person or persons who committed these crimes can be brought to justice. I wanted to see this terror ended. I did not do it.” Faye Williams, who had testified during the trial that her son was “a fun-loving 100% American boy,” was less forgiving. She called Judge Cooper an Uncle Tom and charged of the jury that “all they wanted to do was go home.” Said she of the trial: “It was a setup from beginning to end.”

The case against Williams was an ever tightening web of circumstantial evidence presented to a jury that sat through testimony from 197 witnesses and examined 728 pieces of evidence. Robert Henry, a gardener, said he had seen Williams walking hand-in-hand with Cater two days before Cater’s body was found floating in the Chattahoochee River. Police say that, shortly after a splash was heard, Williams was spotted driving slowly across a bridge not far from where Cater’s body was found. A.B. Dean, 80, the last person who reported seeing Jimmy Ray Payne alive, said Williams was with that victim too, a few days before Payne’s body was dragged from the river.

But the most important elements in the prosecution’s case throughout the trial were damning shreds of evidence. Among them: green fibers and dog hairs found on the bodies. Those materials were said to be similar to the carpet in Williams’ bedroom and the hair of his German shepherd Sheba. Last week the defense tried to show that the carpet in question was purchased in 1968, three years before the type of fiber found on the bodies was available in commercial carpets. Yet the prosecution presented a loan document indicating that the carpet was bought in 1971.

The prosecution painted a profile of a “mad-dog killer” with a Manichaean personality: intelligent, literate and talented, but also a pathological liar, frustrated dreamer and contemptuous failure. Andrew Hayes, 16, who was among the many witnesses who implied that the defendant was a homosexual, testified that he had been offered money by Williams to perform oral sex. Others, including Bookkeeper Denise Marlin, indicated that Williams was a bigot. Said she: “He used to call his own race niggers.” In his summation, Assistant District Attorney Jack Mallard concluded: “Any person who could kill over and over for no apparent reason would have to have a split personality, be a Jekyll and Hyde.” The fiber evidence, the portrait of the young man’s conflicted personality and the witnesses who saw him with the victims formed a conclusive web, he argued. “In most cases circumstantial evidence is even better than direct evidence because it doesn’t rely on one set of eyes or one person.”

The defense had ended its case last week with testimony from Williams himself, who proceeded to parry questions for nine hours in a confident and cocky manner. Under the gentle questioning of one of his defense lawyers, Alvin Binder, Williams tried to repudiate the portrait drawn by other witnesses. “Ain’t no way I’m a homosexual, huh-uh, no,” he said, looking directly at the jury. His testimony was replete with contradictions of statements he gave in interviews after his arrest, but on one point he was consistent. “I’m innocent, and I haven’t killed nobody, and that’s all there is to it,” he said. When Prosecutor Mallard asked Williams to admit his guilt after pointing out his conflicting statements, the testy defendant replied: “I am about as guilty as you are.”

Another of Williams’ attorneys, Mary Welcome, summed up the defense in an emotional diatribe that compared the defendant to a different “dreamer,” the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The state, Welcome said, had succeeded only in tarnishing the young man’s reputation. She pleaded: “In this nation, you do not convict a person of murder or anything else by soiling him.” In a final flourish, she placed a tiny thimble on the jury box rail. Said she disparagingly of the prosecution’s presentation: “I leave this with you—a thimbleful of evidence, which is not enough for conviction.”

But the fibers and hairs, with the rest of the proof, were enough to remove any doubt from the minds of the eight blacks and four whites on the jury. Welcome says there will be an appeal based on the judge’s decision to allow evidence to be submitted about other killings. “We were put in a position where we were charged with two crimes and had to defend against twelve,” she said. In fact, Williams may have to put up a defense against the other murder charges, which the state says it may also prosecute. —By Walter Isaacson. Reported by Anne Constable/Atlanta

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