Wayne Williams stonewalled to the bitter end

By JOHN G. WARNER  |  Feb. 28, 1982
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ATLANTA -- Wayne Williams stonewalled to the bitter end, when he found that stone walls can be a deadly trap for the very man they were meant to defend.

The 23-year-old only child of two doting black schoolteachers clearly forced his able defense team, which surely knew better, to present him as a gem of humanity whose only flaws were an excess of altruism and a bit of harmless 'hype.'

As a result, he sits alone in his isolated jail cell today, the entire weight of the Atlanta child slayings on his shoulders. Doomed by his own lies, the even clumsier lies of his parents and a neatly woven web of fibers, he was convicted Saturday night of the murder of two of the 28 young blacks abducted and slain in Atlanta and sentenced to two consecutive life prison terms.

During the 35 days of testimony, the state won permission to introduce testimony that tied him to nine more of the killings and one that was never added to the official list. He was scarcely settled back in his jail cell when the remnant of the once-vast federal-city-state task force formed to catch the killer was dismantled, and authorities said they were convinced he had killed all but the two girls on the list of 28.

His parents lashed out at everyone connected with the case, calling it racially motivated. The black judge, they cried, was an 'Uncle Tom;' it mattered not that the nine women and three men who convicted him after only 12 hours of deliberation were called by Williams' own lawyer 'a jury of his peers.' Eight of them were black.

His parents were joined by Camille Bell, mother of one of the slain children, in claiming the killer is white and still loose -- and even still killing, although they say he is now killing black adults of both sexes.

All the victims on the list ascribed to Williams were children, or very slightly-built young men.

Williams' two-month trial unfolded like a ponderous mystery story; the issue was in doubt until the last hour. But there were no heroes in this tale, unless they were the crew of prosecutors headed by District Attorney Lewis Slaton. Slaton and his men put together a bungled bridge stakeout, organized with the FBI a slick, precise presentation of the fiber evidence linking Williams with his victims, and dug out witnesses who placed the defendant with seven of them.

But even that might not have been enough to convict; had Williams not meddled in his own defense a hung jury might well have been the outcome, for the state's case was entirely circumstantial. No one to this day, as chief defense counsel Al Binder was wont to point out, ever saw Wayne Williams do anything illegal.

But Williams apparently could not bear to admit he ever told a lie; he could not admit even that he had ever made a mistake or done a single witless thing in his life. His parents, not satisfied with having presented him as a child whose virtues bordered upon the saintly, were snared in a poor attempt to cook up some evidence for him.

Binder himself was a tragic figure Saturday night. Brought in from Mississippi, apparently financing most of the defense as well as leading it, his massive head seemed to droop lower than usual, the fire did not glint in his eyes. He insisted he would do it exactly the same if he had to try the case over again.

Legal experts expressed great admiration for Binder's performance, just as they did for Jack Mallard, Slaton's chief inquisitor, whose icy, persistent questioning shattered the defendant's cool demeanor and showed the jury 'the real Wayne Williams' -- arrogant, petulant, surly.

They made a strange contrast. Binder has a heart condition and diabetes, obviously in poor health but a commanding figure nonetheless; dragging himself across the evidence-strewn courtroom in his slow, painful walk, his head bowed and sweat glinting on his vast brow; he was a figure out of a Southern Baptist tent revival -- although he is Jewish.

Mallard is a middle-sized man whose small mouth seems permanently set in a tiny smile, although he rarely laughs; a man whose voice is never raised but who can put the venom of a cobra into it; a man whose wife is dying of cancer but would not let him drop out of the trial. His performance was worthy of her faith.

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