News reports about the trial of Wayne Bertram Williams, 23, remind this city of the terror it lived through for almost two years, a nightmare it would just as soon forget.
Williams' lawyers are re-opening the wounds in a wood-paneled downtown courtroom here as they search for a dozen unbiased jurors able to put aside everything they have read or heard linking him to the two killings of which he is accused.
The two victims come from a list of 28 young blacks whose killer or killers baffled police from July, 1979, to May, 1981, with a hopscotch trail of bodies and few clues. A police affidavit reportedly implicates Williams in 20 of those slayings.
"How did you feel when the killings were going on?" asked Mary Welcome, 39, who crusaded against massage parlors as a former city solicitor and now leads Williams' defense team. The prospective juror, an unmarried white in her 20s who works as a clerk for the Army, flinched in her seat.
"It upset me when it was going on," she replied. "I couldn't begin to understand how the families felt. I was angry someone could get away with it and no one could stop them." Yet she became engrossed in the grim saga, and the more she heard on TV and read in the newspapers, the more she "thought it might be more than one killer."
"What did you think when Wayne Williams was arrested?"
"I wondered if they had the right one."
Finding an open-minded jury in Atlanta, a city deluged and frustrated by news accounts of the unsolved killings for so long, is no easy task. But the woman expressed the kind of doubt the defense team wanted as it whittles down 700 prospects for a jury to hear the most sensational murder trial in the city's history, a tedious process that is expected to wind up early next week. The Army clerk survived the first cut and became a potential juror.
Williams is accused of strangling Nathaniel Cater, 27, a day laborer with a drinking problem, and asphyxiating Jimmy Ray Payne, an ex-con who yearned to be a singer, and dumping their bodies in the Chattahoochee River.
Both were on the list of 28 young blacks who were reported missing and later found murdered here between July, 1979, and May 24, 1981, when Cater's naked body was found. Darron Glass, 10, is the only victim still missing and presumed dead.
But there is no "smoking gun," no confession, no identifiable crime scene. Williams maintains that he is innocent, a "scapegoat" of the $6 million investigation.
Lewis Slaton, the poker-faced veteran Fulton County district attorney, must weave his case from a handful of slender threads.
There are a few witnesses who allegedly saw Williams with Cater or Payne.
There is a splash heard by a rookie policeman on a stakeout beneath a bridge Williams drove over early May 22--two days before Cater's body surfaced downstream near a spot where Payne was found a month earlier.
There are the alleged incongruities in what Williams told police and FBI agents that morning. Williams said he was on his way to audition a nightclub singer at 3 a.m., but police say his story hasn't checked out.
Yet the key to a conviction is expected to turn on Slaton's ability to convince a jury that fibers and dog hairs taken from Williams' violet bedspread, green carpet, car and German shepherd dog, Sheba, match those found on the two victims, proving he came into contact with them. A crime lab technician testified at a preliminary hearing that he found "no significant microscopic differences" when he compared the fibers.
Fibers alone won't win the case, say legal experts, but fiber evidence can be used to bolster other circumstantial evidence.
A police affidavit reportedly links Williams to as many as 20 of the victims through such circumstantial and fiber links, but Judge Clarence Cooper has yet to rule whether evidence from the other 18 killings can be admitted.
Such evidence also alleges that bloodstains in Williams' car match the blood type of one of the other task force victims. Prosecutors want a jury intelligent enough to digest charts and graphs about everything from river flow rates to neutron activation analysis, the process reportedly used to compare the fibers.
Slaton is a cagey prosecutor whose last murder trial in 1974 ended in a life sentence for Marcus Wayne Chenault, convicted of gunning down Mrs. Martin Luther King Sr. and a deacon at Ebenezer Baptist Church. But unless he holds more than fibers up his sleeve, his case literally dangles by a thread.
No police officers at any pretrial hearings suggested they saw Williams throw anything off the bridge. Nor did they spot a body floating in the river that night. Mary Welcome has scoffed at the idea that her client, who stands 5 feet 7, could overpower a bigger, stronger man like Cater and hoist him over a bridge railing.
But, somehow, his attorneys must figure out a way to defuse the most nagging question of all, a circumstance that cannot be cited as evidence by either side. Since Williams was arrested seven months ago, no young blacks have turned up murdered or missing.
Across the courtroom, Slaton also faces defense attorney Alvin Binder, a cigar-chomping Jackson, Miss., lawyer with a slow drawl, a junkyard dog's taste for the jugular and a client list that usually runs toward white-collar criminals and politicans.
Binder saunters to the podium, a stocky middle-aged man probing for 12 jurors and four alternates capable of suspending their disbelief that Williams is the "snatcher," in spite of endless news accounts detailing the case against the freelance TV cameraman turned self-styled talent scout.
"Can you divorce yourself from what you've heard or read and make a decision solely on what's presented in court?" asks Binder.
"I believe I can," said one prospect.
"I doubt it," said another.
One man said he was afraid to serve. "The case is going to get a lot of publicity," he said. "And in our society, anytime someone comes to the forefront, it seems like they're a target."
Judge Cooper, who has ordered the lawyers not to talk to the press about the case under penalty of contempt, reminded the man, a white construction-company supervisor with two children, that he also has ordered the media not to report jurors' names. "Does that ease your mind?"
But the aura of heavy security has been unsettling for some. Two police sharpshooters stare down from the rooftop when Williams arrives and leaves, accompanied by 15 deputies armed with pistols, shotguns and M16 rifles. Bomb-squad dogs sniff out the courtroom each day. Visitors are ushered through a metal detector. And the halls are sealed off every time Williams moves through.
"A lot of people think we're overreacting," said Sheriff Leroy Stynchcombe. "But I'd rather be over-careful than let one nut get through."
As a precaution, sheriff's deputies drive the judge to and from court. Williams balked at wearing a bullet-proof vest, then changed his mind. "It's like the deputies told him," said Stynchcombe, who has received numerous death threats against the accused killer. "The vest might be uncomfortable, but it's a lot more comfortable than a bullet." Williams' lawyers have their own three-man security team which includes a private investigator who wears a stiletto belt buckle.
A defense motion reserves the right to request a change of venue, but Mary Welcome has said she believes Atlanta can give Williams as fair a trial as any city, since the whole country followed the murders through the press. Once a jury is sworn, the request is moot.
"If you were sitting over here where ol' Wayne's sitting, and ol' Wayne was sitting where you're sitting, you wouldn't feel very good about having him as a juror, now would you?" Binder asked.
"No, sir," said Alan Betzel.
"What you've seen on TV gave you the impression the accused was guilty, didn't it?"
Some defense questions are aimed at gauging potential jurors' feelings toward victims on the task force list, who were all young, poor and black. They were asked if they had ever gone on a search for the missing children, and if they had ever worn a green ribbon (promoted as a national symbol of sympathy for Atlanta). Black mothers with young children are especially suspect.
White candidates are quizzed about any racial prejudice that could backfire against Williams. Blacks are asked about authoritarian leanings that might make them doubly tough on one of their own accused of a crime some consider akin to genocide.
Binder studied the distinguished-looking man on the stand. He was the father of a 5-year-old boy. He was a Methodist. He worked for the state department of transportation. He was black. Binder is Jewish.
"You and I are both members of a minority," drawled the lawyer. "Minorities are usually very punishing and critical of their children. They want them to succeed in life. My father was that way with me. Sometimes, a black coach is harder on his own son than the other players." He gestured toward Williams. "Would you treat this young black man that way?"
"No, I'd treat him the same, whether he was black or white."
He survived the first cut, too.