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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 quite different brief passage that could not possibly have an available witness? One of the victims, little Joseph Bell, is playing an electronic game and runs out of money. At this juncture a black-gloved hand appears and a voice says, “I’ll stake yuh.” Joseph Bell’s disappearance follows immediately. We can legitimately infer that we have been introduced to a putative actual murderer, who is identifiable by no clue except glove and voice. It is palpably not Wayne Williams’s voice, and its cadences suggest a southern white man’s. Here is a portrait that can have no model outside its draftsman’s imagination.

Atmospherics nearly as fictive attend Mann’s re-creation of the last hours of Nathaniel Cater, the creature of pathos who was the second of the two victims whose death the jury laid to Williams. Cater is shown guzzling a drink as an interloper at a luncheon of Atlanta’s black bourgeoisie. When he is thrown out, the chairman dismisses him with a coarse and disdainful quip. Now, even granting that an apparition as tattered as poor Cater could have entered into those premises without being stopped at their very portals, I very much doubt that any such thing happened, and I feel sure that it is introduced to no purpose except to indicate black success’s contempt for black failure, a recurrent theme in The Atlanta Child Murders.

All black authority—the mayor, the public safety commissioner, and the major in charge of the child murder task force—displays a bullying pomposity in its evasions of plain duty to justice that is barely distinguishable from that of white officialdom in the Sixties’ films about the bad old South. Even the black police lieutenant who arrests Williams seems to have patterned his bearing on the white deputies in those movies. No one could spend much time in Atlanta and not notice the wall that divides classes among persons of color, but the problem is entitled to attention more subtle than this low order of caricature.

Cater is last seen—or more accurately imagined—alive lying on his bed in the Falcon Hotel moaning, “I can’t cut it no mo’.” The implication would seem to be of suicidal intent and would be rather more supportable if Mann had bothered to dispute the subsequent coroner’s finding of death by strangulation.

But then we may concede that the fancy has its right to soar even in a docudrama; the pity is that Mann has been insufficiently scrupulous in dealing with the inarguable record. He has license to pick and choose his pages from the trial record, and, as an advocate, he cannot be blamed for skimping on the evidence that fibers found on the victims matched fibers in a Williams family carpet, surprisingly compelling though it turned out to be. But he really ought to have had some respect for those tones of testimony that cannot be caught from the stenographer’s transcript alone.

The fiber evidence was initially presented by Larry Peterson, a Georgia Bureau of Investigation technician. As remembered, Peterson was a witness notable for modesty in demeanor and some diffidence in advancing his proposition; as acted, he is a bundle of arrogant self-assurance. But then, of all the inauthenticities of The Atlanta Child Murders, the most critically disabling have to do with the limning of character. Calvin Levels plays Wayne Williams, and his is one performance that comes close to its original model, but aside from Rip Torn’s district attorney, the main actors in the trial are hopelessly awry.

Williams was cunningly prosecuted and ineptly defended, and that imbalance is one of the reasons why he cannot be said to have had a fair trial. As lawyer for the defense, Binder lamentably failed to justify the immense reputation he brought to Atlanta from Mississippi. He is played by Jason Robards, a strong actor at a considerable loss because Binder did not leave him a line whose limpness could be stiffened into force.

Poor Robards was so cheated of his chances for dramatic ascent that Mann was pushed to invent them. Robards arrives at a point in his final summation when he needs to dispel all implications that Williams had the physique to lift the bodies of Payne and Cater over a four-foot-high bridge wall. The fabricated Williams is led over to the jury box, and the panel is invited to feel his hands and observe the pudginess of his frame. There follows a dose of touching and grabbing that stops only when the fabricated Williams is affronted by these degradations, pushes the fabricated Binder away, and stalks back to his seat. Here I must intrude the evidence of my own eyes. It was indeed an embarrassing interlude precisely because not one juror would reach out and touch the real Williams, and he just stood there for several aching seconds, then turned and trudged away. It was when I saw those shrinkings that I first sensed that it was all over for him.

The role of Faye Williams, the defendant’s mother, fell to Ruby Dee, a strong actress conscripted to counterfeit a pitifully weak woman. The real Mrs. Williams loyally undertook her duty to exercise a mother’s First Amendment right to rig the facts for her son; the sorrow was that she did the office badly enough to open the door to horridly effective prosecutory rebuttals.

Williams’s trial fell short of high standards for justice, if only because a defense already burdened with a charge of two murders ought not to find itself contending with ten more in the middle of trial. But Mann’s version of this history is otherwise a monument to my own suspicion that vulgarity is one characteristic that leaps across every barrier of difference in ideology. This is the work of a mind as vulgar as Jerry Falwell’s, and no loftiness of end can acquit the means toward which it has been employed.

Letters

The Atlanta Child Murders’ April 11, 1985

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