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The Atlanta Child Murders’

In response to:

Misjudgment at Atlanta from the March 14, 1985 issue

To the Editors:

I’m not surprised at your hysterical review of The Atlanta Child Murders, Mr. Kempton [NYR, March 14]. I would be upset if I were you too.

You had a ringside seat at the Wayne Williams trial. Yours was one of the first voices. Thank God it wasn’t the last.

Justice George T. Smith of the Georgia Supreme Court said that, “It was a trial of rank hearsay, unproven assumptions and guesswork.” Abraham Ordover, the eminent law professor of Emory University in Atlanta, stated, “The procedures used in the Williams case could destroy our judicial process if allowed to continue.”

But one wouldn’t gather that from reading your articles, would one, Mr. Kempton? It was partially because of you that the world has its misconceptions of the Wayne Williams case. You blew it, Mr. Kempton. You really blew it.

But the reason I am writing this article is to address myself to what you call the “compelling” fiber evidence.

What you didn’t even let us understand was that this was the first time in courtroom history that fibers were being used not as supporting evidence as they always have been but as the only justification for a conviction. Any person in law enforcement will tell you how dangerous that is because fibers are highly subjective and easily contaminated.

Justice Smith dismissed the fiber evidence as a “sham” and “worthless.” Alan Dershowitz called it a “dangerous phenomenon.” But perhaps the greatest criticism of the fiber evidence came from the chief architect of the prosecution, Gordon Miller. He is no longer working for the city of Atlanta and perhaps he feels freer now to speak out about the case. In a recent UPI article, he stated, “Reliance on the fiber evidence was an unusual approach dictated by community outrage at the growing death toll. Defense attorneys could have cast doubt on the prosecution’s unique fiber evidence by questioning whether it was properly handled during the collecting and testing phases.”

You blew the review too.

You criticize a scene in a video arcade in which an unseen black-gloved man appears. You say its cadences suggest a southern white man’s. It was done by a black man.

You say that I falsely imagine Nathaniel Cater in despair in the movie. Cater was a man who sold his blood and his body for money. It was a matter of testimony at the trial that he sold his blood four times in one month before he died. Do you think he might have been in despair?

You criticize a scene in the judge’s chambers in which plans are discussed how to get Williams home to freedom because they assumed that the verdict would not be guilty. You say that it is inconceivable that Alvin Binder could have believed that “the case against Williams was so flimsy that he could have been exonerated.” But he did believe that, Mr. Kempton, and I have taken down the scene verbatim in his own words. You can call Mr. Binder and check it. His number is (601) 948–8800.

Any self-respecting journalist would have checked those things. But you have always sacrificed truth for what you think is a “slant” that might make people think you are a “clever” writer. You have struck again. As my friend, Vittorio DeSica, said, “Now comes the tragic moment in which you reveal your wit.”

Abby Mann

Beverly Hills, California

Murray Kempton replies:

Mr. Mann’s arousal by my imperfections seems to have distracted him from taking upon his shoulders the real burden of my complaint.

The fiber evidence was, as I said, indeed “surprisingly compelling” and it drew its force as much from the defense’s rebuttal as from the prosecution’s proof. Its centerpiece was a rug in the Williams living room, whose threads were offered as a match with several found on the bodies of Nathaniel Cater, Jimmy Lee Ray, and other victims. These particular strands had been constructed from a textile lobe so unique that it had been employed by just one mill in the service of just one manufacturer in just the one year 1971. As few as thirty square yards of this carpet in its English Olive pattern may have been all that was sold in Atlanta’s entire merchandising history. Mrs. Williams endeavored to beat back this challenge by swearing that the carpet had been in her house since 1968; and the prosecution quickly seized its advantage from this pitiful exercise of a mother’s protective instincts and produced the carpet’s bill of sale and a witness who swore that he had himself installed it in 1971. By then these tiny threads had begun to look like steel cables; and their apparent bulk may in part explain how William’s jury could have taken less than a day’s discussion to arrive at a guilty verdict in a murder case it had spent nine weeks hearing, one puzzle that Mann consistently avoids engaging.

It is my recollection that Lubie Geter’s name was pronounced “Jeeter” throughout the proceedings; and Mann’s use of the hard “G” entitles us to surmise that his familiarity with them is largely confined to the printed transcripts. Those are a sound source and in no way inferior to the fallible impressions of a journalist’s ear and eye. But there are standards for reading a record; and Mann’s lamentably fail in scrupulosity.

Let me add two small but not untelling examples. The prosecution sought to darken its picture of Wayne William’s violent nature with instances of purported physical aggression against his own father. Such incidents were described by two witnesses. One was Sheldon Kemp, a transient object of Wayne Williams’s attentions as talent scout; the other was the night manager of a parking lot who testified that he had seen Williams strike his father in a dispute over the use of the family car. The Atlanta Child Murders shows us a scrap of Sheldon Kemp’s witness and Faye Williams’s assertion that he bore an animus against her son and his family. That is not necessarily implausible; but what of the parking lot manager, a stranger presumably unbiased? He has been erased from Mann’s history. I do not happen to think that occasional temper tantrums go very far toward proving an inclination to multiple murder; but why, when he engages even a matter so dubiously relevant, does Mr. Mann persist in distorting its evidence with an omission so blatant?

Then there is the witness we can only call “Darrell.” A conscience-troubled Atlanta detective confides Darrell’s history as a juvenile delinquent to defense counsel Alvin Binder, who is then shown revealing it in triumph to the jury on cross-examination. The effect is of a defense coup rather disabling to the prosecution’s credibility. But the secret so dramatically penetrated had never been a secret at all: the prosecutors had introduced “Darrell” to the stand with the stipulation that, since he was a certified delinquent and the ward of the children’s court, he could not be identified even to the extent of giving his last name.

Whatever else may be said of such lapses, they leave me with the assurance that Mann read the record most carefully and with a disciplined determination to overlook anything unsuitable to the convenience of his argument. His fancy appears to have been given freer play. Of course, I never questioned Nathaniel Cater’s despair; I only wondered what could be the purpose of the scenes of Cater’s last days conjured up by Mann except to convey the image of someone whose despair is impelling him toward suicide. Mann’s reference to Jimmy Lee Ray’s prior attempt at self-destruction may have been designed as a similar suggestion; and it would be a more legitimate one, since the medical examiner’s finding of homicide was impressively disputed in Ray’s case and in Cater’s hardly at all.

Mann skips over my objections to the fictive tableau of Cater’s being ejected from a Negro College Fund luncheon. I remain at a loss to conceive of what it is meant to tell us except that Atlanta’s black middle class disdains its black poor. I sense the same message at its most spiteful pitch in a portrayal of a black police major by James Earl Jones that stirs so many evocations of Orson Welle’s Texas sheriff in Touch of Evil.

Successful black Atlanta may not have the unvarying concern for failed black Atlanta that Mann’s ideals demand; all the same I doubt that either he or I have histories of so much better service as to convey much title to withering scorn of the society that did, after all, produce Martin Luther King, Jr.

I am, to be sure, drawing inferences of Mann’s intent, as I did when I felt the suggestion of a southern white cadence in the voice of the actor who played the putative murderer. I assume that he was instructed to essay the most neutral tone possible; anything else would have been inexcusable in a scene so completely a figment that its author had no way of knowing that this was even the circumstance of Joseph Bell’s initial encounter with his killer. I can concede an incorrect inference there; but Mann seems disinclined to quarrel with my others, and I feel allowed to think it not wholly honorable of him to have started so many inferences, not without deliberation, I fear, and then virtuously to assume the posture of someone who intended no implications.

I have had prior occasion to apologize for a bad habit of running on with reply briefs twice the size of the complaint. Having said too much, I shall say no more beyond observing that real events are real events and history is history, and that, although journalists better than I cannot escape frequent misreadings of them, I have never met any who would twist an event quite as cavalierly and, I suspect, as consciously, as Mann has this one.

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