Atlanta Child Murders— Part I: Critical Thinking

October 18, 2010

Although television is replete with lapses in critical thinking skills (witness shows like The Ghost Whisperer ), there are welcome exceptions. One of them was Soledad Obrien’s CNN special, Atlanta Child Murders (which first aired June 10, 2010). This in-depth review of a sensational and controversial case by an award-winning journalist gave short shrift to phony psychics and provided further evidence against the convicted serial killer, Wayne Williams. As it happens, I had also researched the Williams case and written about it in my forensic textbook, Crime Science .

Over a twenty-two-month period beginning in July 1979, thirty African-American children and young men either disappeared or were found murdered in Atlanta. The serial killings made national and international headlines. In time, in response to public pressure, a special Atlanta Homicide Task Force was set up to solve the crimes. As the case progressed, criminalist Larry Peterson of the Georgia State Crime Laboratory began to identify distinctive fibers found on the bodies of the victims, including yellowish-green nylon fibers and violet acetate fibers—in all, twenty-eight different fibers plus dog hairs.

Meanwhile, the police arrested a suspect, a young black man named Wayne Williams. Officers who had a bridge under surveillance heard a splash about 2:00 A.M. on May 22, 1981, and stopped the only car that had been on the bridge at that time, driven by Williams. A search of his home and car provided numerous fibers similar to those found on the victims’ bodies. As well, witnesses testified that they had seen Williams with some of the victims, and, of course, there was the fact that after his arrest the murders had ceased.

At Williams trial, the defense sought to discredit the fiber evidence, arguing that a particular fiber might be in the home or vehicle of any of numerous people. But the prosecution challenged the jury to consider the limited number of people who would have the particular carpet that was the source of one distinctive type of fiber; out of those, they asked, how many could also be expected to have a particular bedspread that was the source of light green cotton fibers blended with violet acetate fibers? And of the few who might have the same carpet and bedspread, how many would also drive a 1970 Chevrolet station wagon as well as own a German shepherd? And so on. During the time when Williams was known to have been using a rented car, fibers that could be matched to that car’s carpeting were discovered on victims’ bodies. The jury understood the evidence and on February 27, 1982, convicted Wayne Williams of the two murders he was tried for. He was sentenced to life in prison, whereupon Atlanta’s police commissioner closed 21 other murder cases.

A little later that year, at an international microscopy conference where I was a presenter along with Larry Peterson, I was able not only to see the criminalist’s impressive presentation of the fiber evidence but to discuss it both with Peterson himself and with world-famous microanalyst Walter McCrone (who is best known for discovering paint pigments on the Shroud of Turin). McCrone had been called on to review Peterson’s work on the Williams case and had done so favorably. (For more on the case with an emphasis on the fiber evidence, see Joe Nickell and John F. Fischer, Crime Science: Methods of Forensic Detection , 1999, chapter 3, esp. pp. 75-84.)

In 1998, after Williams’ lawyers argued that prosecutors had withheld evidence in the case, Georgia circuit judge Hal Craig upheld the convictions. He termed the fiber evidence “the strongest scientific link in this case.” Now Soledad O’Brien has taken yet a new, in-depth look at the Atlanta child murders, and Williams’ guilt seems well established. There is even new evidence: DNA from two human hairs found inside one victim’s shirt would exclude some 98% of people in the world, but is consistent with Wayne Williams, who according to experts, “cannot be excluded.”

(Next time: Part II focuses on “psychic” involvement in the Atlanta case.)