IN THE CURRENT swirl of emotion concerning the murders of 20 black children in Atlanta, the facts have somehow got lost. And this has given rise to intemperate statements by some that if the children had been white more would have been done to stop the murders and speculation that there may be a conspiracy to kill blacks around the nation. People saying these things admit they have no evidence except that other people are saying the same or worse. Here are some facts that help explain why, to answer one question, police have yet to solve a series of crimes that began almost two years ago, and why they did not immediately -- or much sooner than they did -- perceive what we now see as the pattern. These do not lend credence to the suspicions being raised in public by many.
The body of the first child, 14-year-old Edward Smith, was found in July 1979. The cause of death was a gunshot wound. On the same day, a second child was found dead, near the first, but the cause of his death was undetermined. Police were suspicious, but the boys had disappeared at different times -- five days apart -- and there was no clear connection between them. The next dead child was not found until Nov. 4, 1979, four months later. Again, the cause of death was undetermined. On Nov. 8, another body was found. This child died of strangulation. But because of a history of trouble between the child's parents, police at first suspected the child's father. That was the last child murder of 1979 in Atlanta, four deaths among 231 homicides in the city that year.
The next murder did not occur until March 10, 1980. At this point, police looked at homicides involving childred in Atlanta for the past five years, searching for some link between them but found none. After that, no murdered children were found until May 19, 1980. That youngster, however, had testified in a trial against a group of youths shortly before his death, and his murder is thought to be connected to that case. Only after his death, however -- almost one year after the first of the seven deaths -- did anyone begin to link the deaths together. The parents of the dead children got police to form a special task force. Suddenly the pace of the murders accelerated. Two bodies were found in July, one in August, two in October, one in November, one in December, two in January 1981, two in February and one, so far, in March. Of the 20 deaths, seven were by strangulation, three by asphyxiation, six by undetermined causes, two by beatings with an object, one by gunshot and one by stabbing.
What were the police doing as the murders mounted? After establishing a special five-man unit in July 1980 to investigate the murders, the police increased the size of the task force to 17 people in one month's time. Two months later, in September, the city of Atlanta set up a $10,000 reward fund for information on the murders, and the FBI became involved in the case. That same month, the U S. Secret Service provided the task force with confidential records on potential suspects. In October, the local task force grew to 29 people; by November there were 33 people working on the case. When the FBI officially became involved in February of this year, 78 people were assigned to the local task force working on the murders.
In laying out the facts of the case, it becomes apparant that the deaths were by no means ignored or given light treatment in Atlanta. Maynard Jackson, the black mayor of that city, and Lee Brown, the black commissioner of public safety, take exception to such claims. They ask why no one questioned the competence of the mayor or police in other cities during similar episodes -- Son of Sam in New York, for instance. And Mayor Jackson adds that from all available evidence the murders do not appear to be a part of a conspiracy. The district attorney in Atlanta says as many as 10 different people may be involve with the 20 deaths, ranging from one mad killer to people following his example to relatives of the children who may have abused the youngsters. On the federal level, President Reagan, who earlier gave the city almost a million dollars to help with safeguards to prevent more killings, has now given $1.5 million more in direct aid to the investigation.
There is good historical precedent for black people in this country to be apprehensive about what is happening in Atlanta. This is a country where black skin has meant slavery, lack of justice and basic deprivation at different times. But to conjure up fears that no one is trying to solve the murders in Atlanta or that there is a national conspiracy to kill blacks without any facts to substantiate such speculation verges on hysteria and invites it. Hysteria won't solve the murders. The police and the investigators will.