Film of Murders in Atlanta Opens Painful Wounds

Times Staff Writer

Not so long ago, this was a city afraid to let its children play outside. A killer--or killers--stalked the young. Reward money poured into City Hall, and citizens banded into weekend posses to search for bodies. The mayor urged an end to Halloween.

Then, in February, 1982, Wayne Williams was convicted of two murders. Though both of these victims were adults, Atlanta's days of torment seemed over. Police insisted that Williams was the elusive child-killer they had hunted for two years. They closed the books on 22 other murders.

While some doubts have lingered here about the sweep of Williams' villainy, the city's anguish has dissolved into a bad memory. The Georgia Supreme Court upheld Williams' two convictions. Atlanta again sought to be seen as the capital of the New South rather than the lair of a monstrous killer.

But now that anguish is being revived. On Sunday, television, that family-room fascinator, will begin to retell the story of the murdered children in prime time. The five-hour TV movie version suggests that Wayne Williams may have been nothing more than a scapegoat to calm this city's hysteria.

Though only 50 or so Atlanta community leaders have seen screenings of "The Atlanta Child Murders," many are outraged enough to take a punch at the familiar CBS eye.

The movie, which the network labels a "drama based on fact," questions Williams' guilt, portrays the police as inept and depicts Atlanta's black politicians as uncaring men more interested in firming up their control of this biracial city than solving the homicides of its black children.

'Disregard for Accuracy'

The Rev. Joseph Lowery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference charges: "The whole thing has a reckless disregard for accuracy. It is an attack on Atlanta."

Last week, 70 businessmen, politicians and clergy hastily planned the city's response. They appointed several task forces, including a fact squad to challenge the movie's errors, a group to prepare school children who may be frightened by the program and a delegation that met with CBS executives Monday afternoon in New York.

Tuesday, that delegation, led by Mayor Andrew Young and former Gov. George Busbee, announced that CBS had agreed to run an advisory with the movie that reads in part: "Some of the events are fictionalized for dramatic purposes."

Nevertheless, CBS issued a further statement insisting that its movie is fair and balanced.

'Questionable' Program

Young then went on to call it "questionable" even as entertainment. If a murderer loses before the Georgia Supreme Court, the mayor complained, he "can appeal to CBS, and they can rewrite the facts and give a different verdict."

To understand the city's anxiety about a TV movie is to recall the 22-month period beginning in 1979 when terror was this city's ritual. The "snatcher" was feared at every corner. A dusk-to-dawn curfew was imposed for children under age 14. Atlanta was known worldwide as the city with a list of the missing and murdered.

"It was the most difficult time this city--and maybe any city--had ever gone through," said Dan Sweat, president of a group of downtown business leaders. "It was a nightmare that wouldn't end--and when it did, it was like the first spring morning after a bad winter."

The movie that is about to disturb this "spring" is billed as a "docudrama," the controversial TV cousin of the historical novel. Docudramas are based on real events, but leap into fiction over who said what, when they said it or whether they said it at all. As in this movie, characters are often composites of several people. Events are telescoped for better theatrics.

Its writer and co-producer is Oscar-winner Abby Mann, whose writing credits include the movie "Judgement at Nuremberg" and the TV mini-series "King," based on the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Mann claims that his new docudrama, far more than most, sticks to facts. It is the product of three years research and 600 interviews, he said. He contends that the courtroom scenes come entirely from actual trial testimony.

"If anything, I've been too kind to the prosecution, bent over backwards to show their case," he said.

Wayne Williams, an aspiring music promoter who is black, first became a suspect in the murders when he was spotted on a bridge above the Chattahootchee River, where bodies had been dumped. After that, a crush of police and press bird-dogged him for weeks, while prosecutors, candid about their lack of evidence, struggled to assemble a case.

In the end, the prosecution built its case on fiber evidence, the microscopic similarities of hundreds of tiny threads retrieved from the victims and those found in Williams' home and car. Ordinarily, such evidence is used only to support more damaging proof. In this case, it was the hub around which everything else turned.

Used Pattern Tactic

The prosecution also relied on a secondary tactic known as "pattern"--the introduction of evidence that linked Williams to 10 other murders for which he was not charged. These other victims were said to form a pattern because each was poor, black, small in size and active on the streets at night. The fibers also matched.

In effect, Williams had to defend himself against 12 murders although he was charged with only two.

"Even if Wayne Williams were guilty, these tactics shouldn't have been used," Mann said. "These tactics have been used against minorities for years, particularly blacks. These are enormous social issues."

Mann regards the current furor in Atlanta as some kind of ironic vindication. He likens the city's reaction to the political cosmetics depicted in the movie.

"I find it incredible that the black leaders of Atlanta won't rally to issues that hurt black people," Mann said.

Atlanta's leaders, however, appear more concerned with what they regard as the inventions and distortions Mann permits himself in pursuit of his purportedly noble themes.

The TV viewer will see far less evidence than that seen by the jury of eight blacks and four whites. The nine-week trial is compressed into a few hours. Only 17 of the 203 witnesses make an appearance.

Lewis Slaton, the popular district attorney who prosecuted the case, said Mann's main talent is for craftily lifting things out of context.

"The scene with Williams on the bridge is a distortion," he said. "The fiber evidence is incompletely shown. We introduced evidence of scratches on Williams' forearms consistent with the reaction of a victim being strangled."

Claims Subtle Bias

Jack Mallard, who assisted Slaton with the prosecution, said some of the bias is more subtle and sinister: "The state's witnesses were all portrayed as evasive liars. The defense witnesses were all portrayed as being sincere."

CBS has a program practices department, which checks its docudramas for accuracy.

"We're not saying it's newsreel footage, but we are saying that it's a fair dramatization," said Alice Henderson, vice president of program practices for the CBS Broadcast Group.

But fact often gives way to drama at decisive moments in this movie that CBS has chosen to show during the networks' critical "sweeps" period--the time when advertising rates are set.

Some examples:

In a pivotal sequence, Alvin Binder, the Mississippi lawyer who defended Williams, is shown telling his client to get angry on the witness stand--"to be a real human being." Later, when the advice turns sour and Williams is called a Jekyll-and-Hyde personality, he blames his lawyer for the poor counsel.

"It's a damn lie," Binder said, when read the scene. His co-counsel, Mary Welcome, also said the events are embellished.

Mann responded: "I believe Al Binder is a very wonderful man, but I believe (the sequence) was in substance so."

In the movie, Sirlena Cobb, mother of slain child Christopher Richardson, is badgered by a white racist police officer.

That scene is a fiction, she said.

Mann responded: "That's rather a composite picture. Such things happened to other mothers."

In the movie, private detective Chet Dettlinger plays a key role in asssisting the defense. He also is described as a former Atlanta cop who once had a reputation for being among the best on the force and whose conflicts with new superiors knocked him out of a job.

Actually, Dettlinger was far less important in assisting the defense team, according to both defense attorneys. He left the Atlanta police force in 1975, five years before an official list of murdered and missing children was started.

Though he was a paid consultant on the film, Dettlinger said a scene where he is questioned as a suspect in the murders is highly overdramatized.

Mann responded: "Atlanta police dispute that (Dettlinger) had a good reputation, but a lot of people don't."

Such conflicts between fact and fiction arm the critics.

"The movie gives Atlanta a bad rap undeserved, makes it appear racist and redneck," said Paul Raymon, general manager of the CBS affiliate in Atlanta.

He arranged screenings for Atlanta's leading citizens last week, announcing that his news department would follow the movie with a program to "set the record straight."

Several mothers of the slain children also have seen the movie. While they too complain about some of the facts, they welcome its broadcast.

"The police botched the whole thing up," said Annie Rogers, mother of murdered teen-ager Patrick Rogers. "Maybe now they'll have to investigate some more."

The mothers, not unlike the entire city, hold opinions that range from Williams the scourge to Williams the scapegoat.

"If Wayne Williams really killed our children, we want to see the evidence in a trial," said Camille Bell, mother of slain Yusuf Bell and another paid consultant on the film.

Williams, 26, is serving two life sentences. In December, 1983, the Georgia Supreme Court upheld his conviction by a 6-1 vote.

In the lone dissent, Justice George T. Smith also took aim at the fiber evidence and the introduction of pattern, which he said was "highly prejudicial . . . never clearly proven by the state . . . weak."

It is these same issues that Williams' current attorney, Lynn Whatley, intends to pursue in a federal appeal this summer.

"Let the story be told," Whatley said, grateful for the television verdict more kindly to his client than any from judges or jury.

"If the people don't like it, don't watch it."

See Howard Rosenberg's review, Part I, Page 6.

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