Misjudgment at Atlanta

The Atlanta Child Murders

written and coproduced for CBS television by Abby Mann

Just about three years have gone by since official Atlanta announced that the violent deaths of twenty-nine persons—most of them young boys—had been solved with the conviction of Wayne Williams for the murder of two of them. Now comes Abby Mann, a screenwriter of eminence, to challenge this judgment in The Atlanta Child Murders, which CBS broadcast in a segment of two hours on February 10 and three on February 12.

Williams’s appeal from his life sentence is heading toward the US Supreme Court, which has not recently been an abounding reservoir of hope for the criminally convicted. His case, all the same, remains sub judice, a circumstance that would have made a five-hour broadcast proclaiming his guilt altogether disgraceful. The Atlanta Child Murders conveys an impression of Williams’s innocence without being bold enough to affirm it; and, given that redeeming aspect, it cannot be called any worse than relatively disgraceful.

Fairness compels the confession that I attended every session of Williams’s trial and had myself decided that he was guilty of the murders of Nathaniel Cater and Jimmy Lee Payne early—perhaps too early—before the verdict. Anyone who reads what follows ought then to keep it in mind that I am casting upon Mann’s assessment of the business an eye fixed in an opinion contrary to his.

Those portions of the trial that Mann has chosen to highlight are all drawn from the stenographic record, and, selective as his editing understandably is, he has been faithful to the text. But from time to time he introduces private vignettes that offer his imagination broader scope, and he has used that license with shameless prodigality.

Very near the climax, to take an instance, Williams’s judge, his prosecutor, and his defense lawyer gather in chambers after the jury has sent word that it has arrived at a decision, having deliberated less than a day. Judge Clarence Cooper observes that in his experience that sort of brevity means an acquittal. The conversation then turns to considering the least obtrusive ways to get Williams out of court and home to freedom and a cloudless name. Prosecutor Lewis Slaton handsomely offers whatever help he can give.

Those viewers who have by then spent four-odd hours with the gospel according to Abby Mann may be more than excused for believing that the case against Williams was so flimsy that judge, defense counsel, and prosecutor could all have assumed that he had been swiftly exonerated.

But it is inconceivable that every one or, for that matter, any one of the actual participants in that scene really believed any such thing. District Attorney Slaton certainly didn’t and Judge Cooper probably didn’t, and Alvin Binder, the defense chief, had long ago crossed the frontiers of desperation to lodge his terminal hopes on a hung jury.

Still, dubious as this segment is, we cannot dismiss the possibility that Mann has founded it, however shakily, on the memory of someone who was there. But what are we to make of a…

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