Wayne B. Williams, known as the Atlanta child killer, did not receive a fair trial and his murder conviction should have been reversed, according to the original draft by the justice who authored the 1983 Georgia State Supreme Court ruling upholding Williams' conviction.
"We find it necessary to reverse," Justice Richard Bell wrote in the 42-page section of unpublished draft, criticizing the trial judge for allowing prosecutors to link Williams to five murders in addition to the two with which he was charged. The draft raised no objections to Williams' having been linked at the trial to another five murders.
When the full Georgia Supreme Court met privately to consider Bell's original opinion, it was voted down, according to court sources. Bell's draft was rewritten, key portions excised and a majority opinion issued under Bell's name Dec. 5, 1983.
Williams was tried on charges of killing two adults. But the prosecution attempted to link him at the trial to 10 in a string of 29 Atlanta-area murders, most of children. The trial culminated a period in which the child murders focused international attention on Atlanta, drew the Federal Bureau of Investigation and White House into the probe and generated widespread fears that the killings were racially motivated.
Georgia law allows introduction of other crimes into a trial if they show a pattern, such as the killer's method of operation. Bell's original draft said those standards were not met in five of the murders cited by the prosecution.
In the draft, Bell meticulously picked apart those five. He said there was no evidence placing Williams with the 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.
Bell also rejected as a justification the significance of minute fibers from carpets, clothing, blankets and the interior of Williams' home and car that were similar to fibers found on the victims' bodies.
"Fiber evidence may be relevant to establishing the identity of a suspect as the murderer of a given victim," according to a copy of Bell's draft. But since Williams was not charged with these murders, the limited narrow reason for introducing the evidence of the other murders -- to show a pattern or a technique -- was not established by the fibers, according to Bell.
Bell, who spent 20 years as a prosecutor, had been randomly assigned the task of writing the opinion in the Williams case. He took nearly six months writing the entire opinion, according to court sources, and reviewed 10,000 pages of transcripts and exhibits.
When his colleagues met to consider his opinion, they rejected it, first by a 5-to-2 vote. "He defended his opinion until he was overwhelmed," another justice said of Bell. Bell finally switched his vote, making it 6 to 1 to uphold the conviction.
In criticizing the introduction of the other murders, Bell raised one of the objections offered by many of the trial's critics. William's conviction is quite controversial.
Last November, for example, ABC television's "20/20" program suggested that Williams' arrest was political because embarrassed Atlanta officials needed a scapegoat for the string of unsolved murders of blacks.
Next week CBS television is to broadcast a two-part movie, "The Atlanta Child Murders," that leaves the strong impression that Williams may have been railroaded.
Lee Brown, former public safety director of Atlanta, disagrees with this criticism. "There is no doubt in my mind he is the one responsible and justice ran its course," Brown said. After the trial, he closed 23 of the 29 murder cases, attributing them to Williams.
None of the seven Georgia State Supreme Court justices would comment for the record on their handling of the case. Several noted that it is not rare for a justice to change his mind while drafting an opinion or even his vote in a case. Such flexibility, they said, is an important part of the process of internal debate that exists in any appeals court, even the U.S. Supreme Court.
In a telephone interview, Bell, 63, declined to talk about specifics and would only say: "When there's a majority, it's not a writer's opinion, it's the court's opinion."
Williams' current attorney, Lynn Whatley, said in an interview that though Williams' 1982 conviction was for killing Nathaniel Cater, 27, and Jimmy Ray Payne, 21, the introduction of the 10 additional crimes -- including nine child murders -- meant "Williams ultimately went on trial as 'The Child Murderer of Atlanta' . . . . When they opened the door, they let everything come in," he said. "It said to the jury: . . . 'He must be guilty.' "
Bell said in his original draft that "because the evidence of guilt as to the two charged offenses was wholly circumstantial, and because 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 . . . . "
A number of experts in criminal law said the introduction of other crimes erodes the fundamental presumption of innocence, which is the foundation of the American system of justice.
"You want to be sure that the jury convicts somebody for what they did and not who they are," said Charles Nesson, a criminal law specialist at Harvard law school. "When you get into proof of other crimes, then the defendant becomes a criminal. You're trying a criminal, rather than trying an innocent person to see whether he's committed a crime."
Professor Abraham Ordover of the Emory University school of law, who attended the Williams trial, said the introduction of the additional murders had a devastating effect on the jury and changed the tenor of the trial.
"If the prosecution wanted to use these other 10 murders, they could have indicted Williams on all of them and then all of them would have been admissible," Ordover said.
"The public wants a conviction . . . . What I'm suggesting is not a question of whether Williams is innocent or guilty. It's a question of whether we care more about the process than we care about the result."
Jurors say that the 10 additional murders were impossible to ignore during their deliberations in the Payne and Cater murders.
"They did weigh heavily," said juror Clarice Jones Butler, a manager for Southern Bell. "And not to say that without them I would not have felt he was guilty. Since I had them, then it helped."
Walter Brown Jr., an employe of the Georgia Department of Transportation, said: "It was in my mind, there was no doubt about that . . . . You had to make a decision as to who you're trying -- the whole 12 or Payne and Cater . . . . I felt there were similarities, but we were not trying the other ones.
"At first we did have some problems [separating the cases]. In the jury room, I told the jurors: 'Get those out of your minds. We're not trying those.' "
Said juror Edward Derum, a former police officer: "Basically, it was not important. He might have killed 15 people. He might have killed two. But we know that he did two."
The prosecution at trial contended that there was a pattern in all the killings and that the similarities were unmistakable because all the victims were black, tended to spend time on the streets at night, were poor and were smaller than Williams.
Also, Williams had been placed with a few victims before their deaths. He had been seen at some of their funerals. He had been heard to make derogatory statements about fellow blacks. And, in the event that led to his arrest, Williams was stopped by the police on a bridge over the Chattahoochee River after an officer heard a loud splash below; a few days later Cater's body turned up in the water.
But the crux of the government's case was the hundreds of microscopic fibers lifted from victims' bodies that were analyzed and found similar to rugs and clothing in Williams' everyday environment: his bedroom carpet, the trunk liner and interior carpeting of his cars, a throw rug, a toilet seat cover, a jacket, even dog hairs resembling the fur of his German shepherd.
But all the experts agreed that fiber evidence is not like fingerprints. A fiber can show a similarity, but no expert testified that the fibers found on the victims had to have come from Williams' house or car.
On the strength of the fiber connections alone -- that another murderer would have had to have the same bedroom carpet, the same cars -- the prosecutors told the jury that there was only a 1-in-150 million chance that Williams was not the murderer.
The government paraded forensic scientists and textile experts with sophisticated charts before the jury over a period of several days.
The defense did little to countermand the fiber evidence. Williams' fiber expert failed to show up for trial, complaining he was owed $2,500 in fees. Another defense expert who testified was not able to examine most of the government's fiber evidence.
In the final opinion by Bell and the court, the fiber evidence was cited as key reason for connecting the cases and allowing the introduction of the other murders at trial.
Williams is serving two life sentences. His lawyer says Williams plans to appeal in the federal courts. One of his chief claims will be that his trial was unfair because of the introduction of evidence of other murders, a matter which legal experts say has not been addressed by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The five cases that Bell's draft argued should not have been introduced as evidence were the murders of Eric Middlebrooks, 14; John Porter, 28; Alfred Evans, 14; Charles Stephens, 12; and Patrick Baltazar, 11.
Bell wrote that those five either had no value in proving Williams' modus operandi or their value was "insufficient to outweigh their prejudicial impact." Their admission into evidence was error, he said.
After Bell switched his vote, Justice George Smith was the lone dissenter.
According to one of his colleagues, Smith disagreed strongly with the final vote upholding Williams' conviction and at one point said to the other justices, "The only thing similar about these cases is they're all dead."
In his dissent, Smith charged that the majority had relied on "innuendo, suspicion and guilt by association." He echoed many of the positions in Bell's draft, even adopting some of its language.
Smith said admission of 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."