Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Atlanta Child Murders

Unfair Trial?

During the appeals process, the Georgia Supreme Court assigned Justice Richard Bell to draft the opinion in the Williams case. Justice Bell, a former prosecutor, wrote that Wayne Williams did not get a fair trial and his murder conviction should have been reversed. When the full court reviewed Bell's opinion, it was voted down; Bell's draft was rewritten; Bell was pressured to change his vote, and the majority opinion — to uphold the conviction — came out under Bell's name in December of 1983.

Justice Bell's unpublished draft criticized Judge Clarence Cooper for allowing prosecutors to link Williams to the murders of Eric Middlebrooks, John Porter, Alfred Evans, Charles Stephens and Patrick Baltazar. The standards for linking those crimes to the two for which Williams was charged were not met, according to Bell.

Specifically, Justice Bell said, according to Benjamin Weiser, Washington Post writer (Feb. 3, 1985) that "there was no evidence placing Williams with those five victims before their murders, and as in all the murders linked to Williams, there were no eyewitnesses, no confession, no murder weapons and no established motive. Also, the five deaths, while somewhat similar to each other in technique, were unlike the two for which Williams was tried."

The linking of the other crimes with the deaths of Cater and Payne had the effect of eroding the presumption of innocence. Bell pointed out that "because the evidence of guilt as to the two charged offenses was wholly circumstantial, and because of the prejudicial impact of the five erroneously admitted (uncharged) homicides must have been substantial, we cannot say that it is highly probable that the error did not contribute to the jury's verdict"

The other dissenter was Justice George Smith, who did not change his vote as Bell did. Justice Smith stated that admitting the other crimes "illustrates the basic unfairness of this trial and Williams' unenviable position as a defendant who, charged with two murders, was forced to defend himself as to 12 separate killings."

In 1985, a five-hour CBS docudrama severely ruffled the feathers of the Atlanta city government. The producer made it clear in the movie that he believes that there were "tremendous breaches of legal ethics" during the investigation and trial and that Williams' guilt was not proven.

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