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For prosecutors Jack E. Mallard and Joseph J. Drolet, it was the trial of a lifetime. Twenty years later, both easily recall the details, dates, names and testimony. They can remember critical junctures of cross-examinations. Drolet, now solicitor general for the City Court of Atlanta, still keeps boxes filled with the trial transcript in his office closet. Mallard, who is retired but works as a consulting prosecutor, still has the reference list he used during the trial, a card that recounts the fate of the victims — their names, ages, how they looked when they were alive, and when and where their bodies finally were found. Twenty years ago this week, Mallard, Drolet and three other Fulton County, Ga., prosecutors secured the conviction of Wayne Bertram Williams, the man accused of being the serial killer who had stalked Atlanta’s children for two years and left the city in a state of near-hysteria. Just after 7 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 27, 1982, a Fulton Superior Court jury convicted Williams of the murders of Nathaniel Cater and Jimmy Ray Payne. Williams received two life sentences and is now at Valdosta State Prison in Georgia. He recently lost his state habeas appeal. The conviction was the culmination of a nine-week trial and nine months of nonstop work for Fulton prosecutors. “A monumental physical and mental exercise,” says Drolet. GROUNDBREAKING EVIDENCE The case against Williams was undoubtedly the most complex prosecution ever in Fulton, a formidable legal task unprecedented in its scope. Though Williams was only charged with two murders, prosecutors introduced evidence linking him to the deaths of 10 other young men, all black males between the ages of 11 and 28. They were linked to Williams through microscopic fibers found on their bodies that matched synthetic fibers found in Williams’ home. Though fiber evidence often is used in courts now, it was a new science in 1982. Fiber evidence had been introduced in a handful of cases around the country prior to Williams’ trial, but only as incidental, not key, evidence. “You couldn’t find a case where it was basic evidence used for conviction,” says Mallard. And never before had a Georgia murder case involved such extensive use of evidence of uncharged crimes. Those similar transactions were introduced to prove the killings fit a pattern, a pattern that prosecutors said pointed to Williams. In 1983, the Georgia Supreme Court, in upholding Williams’ conviction, would say that “the sheer number of victims with common characteristics, each logically connected with Williams by hairs and fibers, tends to show a pattern of killings.” Williams v. State, 251 Ga. 749 (1983). Leading up to the trial, the case was probably the most daunting ever for local law enforcement. Hundreds of officials from metro police departments, the FBI and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation had been involved in a task force investigation of 29 deaths that were on the list of Atlanta’s murdered and missing. (A 30th victim was not on that list, but was linked to Williams at trial.) Despite its complexity, the case was put together in just a few months, from May 1981 until jury selection began after Christmas that year. SPLASH TIPS POLICE Williams, a free-lance photographer and self-styled talent promoter, first came under scrutiny at 3 a.m. on May 22, 1981, after a loud splash in the Chattahoochee River alerted a police team at the James Jackson Parkway Bridge to Williams’ car. Police had been staking out bridges after the bodies of several young black males had appeared in local rivers. The body of Jimmy Ray Payne, 21, had been pulled from the Chattahoochee a little more than a mile downstream from the Jackson Parkway Bridge less than a month earlier. The bridge spans the Cobb-Fulton border and lies in the northwest quadrant of I-285. A car’s lights appeared on the bridge above where the splash was heard, police testified, and a car began moving slowly across the bridge. The vehicle then turned around in a parking lot, recrossed the bridge and got on the interstate, where police stopped it. Williams, 23 at the time, was driving. He was questioned, but not arrested — yet. Two days later, 27-year-old Nathaniel Cater’s body was found near the same location where Payne’s was found. One month later, Williams was arrested. And less than two months later, Williams was indicted for both murders. Mallard says prosecutors never considered seeking the death penalty because the case didn’t contain any statutory aggravating circumstances. With an indictment returned, teams of lawyers on both sides began preparing for the sensational trial that would attract worldwide attention. DISTRICT ATTORNEY TAKES CHARGE Lewis R. Slaton was Fulton’s district attorney then. Politically shrewd and media-savvy, Slaton had discussed the case with federal and state officials, as well as with then-Vice President George Bush. Mallard says that while some speculated that Slaton was pressured into indicting Williams to end the hysteria that had gripped the city, that perception was wrong. “You don’t pressure Slaton into doing anything,” Mallard says. What Slaton did do was assemble a top-notch team of four prosecutors, headed by himself, in one of his rare courtroom roles. He assigned each of the other three lawyers a part of the case. Mallard, a veteran prosecutor known for his methodical and penetrating cross-examinations, would develop a plan for the case. He would cull through the cases investigated by the task force and choose which ones to use, develop a trial strategy and line up witnesses. Gordon Miller, who already had been the office’s liaison to the task force, would concentrate on the fiber evidence, and Drolet, the head of Slaton’s appeals division, would be responsible for handling the legal issues certain to arise, both pretrial and at trial. Miller died of cancer at the age of 55 in 1999. Slaton has been in poor health in recent years. Drolet says Slaton began assembling the group after the May 22 bridge incident. And preparing for Williams’ trial, he adds, was “all I did” in the coming months. “All of it was formidable.” DEFENSE LAWYERS SPLIT The defense also faced a formidable task. Mary S. Welcome represented Williams from the beginning. Formerly Atlanta’s solicitor, Welcome had made a name for herself shutting down the city’s massage parlors and bathhouses in the 1970s. She says Williams contacted her, telling her, “I need someone who’s not afraid.” But Welcome had little felony trial experience and knew she needed help. She first turned to Atlanta lawyer Tony L. Axam, a polished and experienced criminal defense lawyer. But the two had a falling-out several months before trial and Axam left the defense team. Axam, now representing murder defendant Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, declined an interview. Welcome says there were philosophical differences, but a key dispute was over how fast the case should go to trial. Welcome says Axam favored an early trial, while she wanted a postponement. Williams and his parents had little money, but he insisted he didn’t want to be declared indigent. That was because he didn’t want to be represented by a public defender, Welcome says. She searched for help, but several attorneys, including famed defense lawyer Bobby Lee Cook, weren’t available, according to court documents. Welcome says while a number of big-name attorneys from around the country called offering to join the defense team, she wasn’t looking for big names seeking publicity. “I was looking for true worker bees,” skilled trial counsel, she says. She eventually brought in Alvin Binder, an experienced trial lawyer from Jackson, Miss., whose courtroom skills had earned him the nickname “Spellbinder,” according to the third member of the defense team, James W. Kitchens, also of Jackson. Welcome now says, “There are times I wish I’d never met Binder. He was nightmarish.” She says he attacked her personally outside the courtroom. Williams’ decision not to seek indigent status meant his lawyers got little, if any, money to use in his defense. Funds raised went to other expenses, such as expert witnesses. Kitchens, who entered the case midtrial at Binder’s request, says he received “not a penny” for his work, and neither did his longtime friend Binder, who has since died. Welcome says she didn’t get paid either. The lack of money made mounting a defense difficult, Welcome says. “I would be the first in line to say Wayne had incompetent counsel. Not because we were incapable, but because we were rendered incompetent by the circumstances,” she says. “I know that I am a better attorney than I was able to be in that case.” PLENTY OF COUNSEL Still, Williams had no shortage of legal counsel. Assisting the trio of Welcome, Binder and Kitchens at trial were two other defense lawyers: Clifton O. Bailey III and Harold W. Spence. Other local lawyers volunteered to help in various capacities. It was, after all, one of the most famous cases in history, says Drolet. “Who wouldn’t want to be involved?” Drolet remembers that one of the biggest lawyering challenges was determining how to present to the jury a subject that was both boring and complex: the fiber evidence. Drolet had to learn the ins and outs of fibers himself, since he was asked to back up Miller on that issue. “The first time I saw matching fibers, I couldn’t tell they matched,” he says. “Purely by happenstance, the most significant fiber [that prosecutors said matched carpet fibers from Williams' home] had been one of the most rare,” further pointing the finger at Williams, Drolet says. But the fiber evidence involved more than matching home carpet fibers. Fiber experts matched up hundreds of bedspread fibers, blanket fibers and fibers from several vehicles Williams had driven to fibers that had turned up on bodies. Mallard says the state’s three experts — from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the FBI and the GBI Crime Lab — concluded that it would be nearly impossible for the combinations of fibers to have originated from anywhere but Williams’ environment. In assembling the evidence, prosecutors had all the investigators they needed, as well as all the resources Atlanta police, the FBI and the GBI had to offer. So, by the time of trial, the state had aerial shots of a two-mile stretch of the Chattahoochee and a 16-foot-long scale model of the James Jackson Parkway Bridge. NO CHANGE OF VENUE Prior to trial, the defense team had filed a motion for a change of venue. After the jury was chosen, the lawyers withdrew it. Welcome says it was primarily an economic decision, since moving the trial would involve living expenses and travel for lawyers and witnesses. And, she says, the team thought that Atlanta just might have “a greater interest in making sure the outcome is just.” Under the circumstances, she says, it was the right decision. Mallard says he never expected the defense would push the issue of moving proceedings outside Atlanta. Not only was Atlanta a more liberal venue than anywhere else in the state, but another venue wouldn’t bring jurors who were unfamiliar with the case, given the publicity surrounding the murders, he says. Kitchens says while “20-20 hindsight is always best,” it would have been worth it to move the trial given the climate in Atlanta. The city, he adds, “was ready to convict Billy Graham had he been charged.” MEDIA FRENZY Media coverage of the trial was relentless. The Atlanta Press Club petitioned to have television and still cameras allowed in the courtroom, but both the prosecution and defense opposed it. At that time, no court in Georgia had allowed cameras in a trial. Fulton Superior Court Judge Clarence Cooper, at the time that court’s newest judge and now a federal judge in Atlanta, refused the request. “We didn’t want to experiment,” says Drolet. “We wanted a clean trial.” The courtroom was equipped with a closed-circuit camera that provided a live feed to a nearby press room for the hundreds of press members who couldn’t get in the courtroom. But the television cameras were in full force outside the courthouse. News vans surrounded the building, Drolet remembers. “Just walking in every day, there were O.J.-type crowds.” The courtroom was packed daily, says Kitchens, while outside the throngs of press would “stick 20 or 30 cameras in your face.” It was, he adds, “indeed the biggest trial in the world.” He recalls being puzzled that the defense team was filmed anew every day entering and leaving the courthouse, yet local TV stations reused one particular day’s footage of the attorneys over and over. Finally he asked one cameraman why. The answer he got was discomforting: “If one of you guys gets assassinated, we don’t want to miss it.” Security was tight. Sharpshooters were perched on the roof of the Pryor Street courthouse, and bomb-sniffing dogs searched the building each morning before court. Jury selection began Dec. 28 and lasted until the 12-member panel — eight blacks and four whites — and three alternates were selected Jan. 4, 1982. Voir dire began without Mallard, who had just received the devastating news that his wife had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. The prosecution team, uncertain if Mallard would return, replaced him with J. Wallace Speed. Speed, then a trial assistant in Slaton’s office, says he got a call one weekend from Slaton, telling him to get up to speed on the Williams case and be ready to replace Mallard if necessary. But Mallard would return when trial began. His wife insisted, he says. Speed remained on the team, however. He says he was assigned certain witnesses to cross-examine and the task of finding the person who sold the Williams family the carpet. Midtrial, Speed located that person at a Las Vegas convention and had the witness flown to Atlanta. ‘NOTHING LIKE THIS’ The trial of Wayne Williams was, Speed says, like none other. “I had done high-profile cases in Superior Court. But, man, nothing like this.” Opening statements were Jan. 6 in a fourth-floor courtroom. Atlanta Constitution columnist and veteran reporter Celestine Sibley wrote in a column that the lawyers were polite and deferential, speaking “like diplomats at a sticky State Department function.” The lawyers maintained that tone, say prosecutors and Kitchens. The trial proceeded in an orderly and professional fashion, says Drolet, because the legal teams respected one another. Kitchens got into the case quite by accident. He ran into his friend Binder on an airplane during one of the weekend breaks in trial. Binder, he says, invited him to watch the case when he came back through Atlanta the following week. He told Binder that he didn’t think he could get in, since he had heard that people were lining up long before daylight for a courtroom seat, Kitchens says. “Come sit at counsel table,” he recalls Binder telling him. So he did. Over dinner, Kitchens says, Binder put on the “hard sell” and begged him to stay. He says Binder didn’t believe that Welcome was much help in the courtroom, given her lack of experience, and that he was eager for assistance. Kitchens says he stayed until the end. “I had to go to Rich’s and buy clothes.” He spent early mornings and late nights reading documents to catch up on the case, cross-examined witnesses, and headed out to interview other potential witnesses. MUSHROOMING CASE By the time Kitchens arrived on the scene, the case against Williams had mushroomed. Drolet had convinced Judge Cooper to allow the state to introduce the pattern evidence, 10 additional murders that prosecutors linked to Williams. The state’s case also included evidence of the bridge incident, witnesses who said they had seen Williams with some of the victims shortly before they disappeared, the fiber evidence, and evidence of motive — that Williams disdained black so-called “street” children, which many of the victims had been. However, it was a completely circumstantial case: no eyewitnesses to the killings, no fingerprints. The closest thing to direct evidence were droplets of blood in one of Williams’ cars, which the state said matched the blood types of two of the victims of the pattern crimes. Mallard says the lack of direct evidence never bothered him. An eyewitness can be wrong, but a good circumstantial case, with many different pieces of evidence such as this one, is a solid case, he says. Prosecutors put 212 witnesses on the stand and offered hundreds of exhibits. About eight medical examiners testified, Mallard recalls. The defense called about 50 witnesses. The jury was sequestered during the trial. Married jurors were allowed a conjugal visit at one point during the trial. The court was careful to advise that “if you’re married, we won’t allow anyone other than your wife to come over.” Trial was brought to a halt once by the forces of nature. An enormous snowstorm, later dubbed “Snow Jam,” swept into Atlanta, swiftly burying roadways and stranding thousands attempting to get home from work. The afternoon of the storm, as the snow piled up, someone informed the judge that it might be advisable to stop early, Drolet recalls, adding that none of the lawyers had any idea what was occurring outside. The trial adjourned early that day and was not held the following day. Drolet, who lived in town, says he made it home that night. Mallard, who lived in Roswell, did not because highways were impassable. He returned to the Fulton courthouse, only to find District Attorney Slaton. The two spent the night sleeping on couches there. Aside from the snow interruption, Drolet says the case moved at a good pace because Cooper had set ground rules for the handling of objections and bench conferences. Drolet says it was a trial more noted for workmanlike lawyering than passionate speeches, though he adds Binder could be eloquent at times. ‘A MOMENT UNRIVALED BY ANYTHING’ Binder was a powerful cross-examiner, Drolet says, but jurors got to know the Mississippi lawyer’s style over the course of trial. Binder would begin his cross quietly and politely, but invariably would progress to shouting out his questions, prefacing them with the words “And the truth of the matter is … “ The jury began to anticipate that, Drolet says, and would mouth out the words “and the truth of the matter is.” The state saved one of its most devastating witnesses for last. Sharon Blakely, the owner of a jewelry store and a friend of Williams, testified about the defendant’s dislike of street children. Blakely said Williams showed her how to knock out victims using a chokehold and told her he would confess if the evidence got close enough to him. On cross-examination, Binder asked Blakely a question prosecutors weren’t expecting: He wanted to know if Blakely believed Williams had killed anyone. The witness was silent. “She looked stunned,” Mallard recalls. “I could see the wheels turning.” The defense lawyer backed off without an answer and ended his cross. “I reckon Binder got worried,” the prosecutor adds. Mallard says he knew how Blakely would answer because he had asked her the same question in preparing for the trial. He got up and asked Blakely to think for a moment and then answer Binder’s question. “A pin would’ve dropped and you could’ve heard it,” the courtroom was so hushed, Mallard says. Drolet recalls that “You can almost see all the jurors lean forward in their chairs. It was a moment unrivaled by anything I’ve ever heard in my life.” Finally, Williams’ friend spoke. “I really feel that Wayne Williams did kill somebody and I’m sorry,” she said, according to the transcript. Mallard says he rested the state’s case and sat down. “If you ever want to leave with a last question by you, that was it,” he says. Binder later told him, Mallard says, that Williams had insisted he ask that question. Welcome says that’s true. Williams, she says, “believed that [Blakely] was his friend and that she, under no circumstances, would have said yes.” WILLIAMS’ TESTIMONY Co-counsel Kitchens says Williams was a most demanding client. And after spending hours and hours at the jail with Williams discussing leads and witnesses, he concluded that his young client was not particularly likeable. Williams was rude to his parents, Kitchens says. “I didn’t like that. I’m of the old school.” He and Binder didn’t try to talk Williams out of testifying, Kitchens says, but did explain the risks. Williams chose to take the stand — a move that some believe sealed his conviction. The lines for a seat during the second day of Williams’ testimony began to form about 4:30 a.m. By the time that deputies began allowing people to head up to the fourth-floor courtroom, about 400 had gathered to vie for the 85 available seats. Those who got in watched Mallard, a prosecutor known for his effective cross-examinations, spar with a witness who repeatedly snapped at his questioner. Mallard, says Drolet, has a “sort of country, methodical and calm” style in crossing a witness. “He stays calm. He lets the witness get agitated.” It worked. Mallard says the key to effective cross-examination is to know the witness well and be prepared. And every time Williams had held a press conference before his arrest, “He gave us more ammunition to cross him on,” Mallard says, adding that, eventually, Williams showed his true self on the stand. Williams challenged Mallard to find any scratches on his body, and compared the FBI to the Keystone Cops, and the Atlanta police to “Car 54, Where Are You?” Had he panicked when he killed his victims? Mallard wanted to know. “Sir, I’m about as guilty as you are,” Williams retorted. Hadn’t he enjoyed the press attention and regarded outwitting police as the challenge of a lifetime? Mallard pressed. “You must be a fool,” Williams said. Welcome says during the early part of Williams’ appearance on the stand, she thought her client came across as too bland and says she urged Williams to be more emphatic and show more emotion. Prosecutors later took advantage of the change in the witness’ demeanor by arguing that he had revealed his true character, Welcome says. CLOSING ARGUMENTS The defense, Drolet says, had intended to put a psychiatrist on the witness stand who had examined Williams and would testify that he was incapable of murder. That’s when prosecutors pulled out a trump card: FBI profiler John Douglas. Douglas had, early on in the task force’s investigation, developed a profile of the serial killer responsible for the deaths around Atlanta. Douglas also had been in the courtroom throughout the trial, watching Williams and offering suggestions to the state. If the psychiatrist testifies, Drolet says prosecutors told Binder, we’ll put Douglas on the stand in rebuttal. The psychiatrist never testified. Welcome says the defense lawyers just didn’t believe the psychiatrist would help the case. Closing arguments drew more crowds to hear prosecutors liken Williams to Idi Amin and Adolf Hitler, while defense lawyers called him a “dreamer” like Martin Luther King Jr. Kitchens says at one point he wanted to object to Slaton’s portion of the closings, but was stopped by Binder. “I was getting to my feet to object when Al pulled me down,” he says. That’s because there was an informal agreement between the sides not to interrupt the other unless some egregious statements were made. During closings, the defense unveiled its counter to the state’s scale-model bridge. Binder hired a carpenter, Kitchens recalls, to construct a bridge. “It was a cute thing, like a jigsaw,” he says, on which were written various elements of the state’s case. Binder would remove pieces periodically during his argument and by the end, the bridge had collapsed. “He said that was the state’s case,” Kitchens recalls. After about 10 hours of deliberation over two days, the verdict was announced Feb. 27 amid heavy security. Kitchens says deputies stood shoulder to shoulder behind the defense table and inside the bar, facing the audience. “They were prepared for the worst,” he says. GETTING BACK TO ‘NORMAL LIFE’ Then it was over. Drolet says he remembers a dinner out at Dailey’s, a well-known restaurant in downtown Atlanta, with detectives, prosecutors and FBI agents after the verdict. “It was really weird trying to go back to a normal life,” he says. Drolet retired from the Fulton district attorney’s office at the end of 1991 and entered private practice. In 1998, he was named solicitor general for the City Court of Atlanta. Mallard retired from Fulton near the end of 1982, taking a job with the Cobb County, Ga., district attorney’s office, where he would be involved in a precedent-setting case on DNA evidence and the prosecution of Atlanta attorney Fred Tokars. He is now serving as a special prosecutor looking into two recent antifreeze poisoning cases. Kitchens is in private practice in Jackson as managing partner of Kitchens & Ellis, a member firm of Atlanta’s Herman Mathis Casey Kitchens & Gerel. He handles plaintiffs’ work and some criminal defense. “You get it in your blood,” he says. Welcome moved to Baltimore in the mid-’80s and went into private practice doing corporate work and civil litigation. She is now a judge on the Maryland Tax Court and owns a printing company. She says she never did another criminal case. Speed is in private practice in Lawrenceville, Ga., where he handles insurance defense for the firm of Speed & Seta. Williams, now represented by Lynn Whatley of Atlanta, recently claimed in his state habeas appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court that the state had withheld exculpatory material and that his trial counsel had been ineffective. The court denied both claims. None of the trial lawyers on either side have changed their views on the guilt or innocence of Williams. “We always thought we had a shot” at winning,” Kitchens says. “Had [the atmosphere] not been so emotionally charged, so politically charged, we would have won it.” He says he still believes Williams to be innocent. “He was just caught up in the fervor of the times, and the times were very tragic.” Welcome says, “I really truly felt that there was so much doubt” that Williams should have been acquitted. The verdict, she says, left her depressed and disappointed in the system. The defense, she says, simply was overwhelmed by a well-orchestrated prosecution and by its own meager resources. Drolet, however, says it wasn’t an issue of resources, but of evidence. “We had the evidence,” he says. “It was hard getting around some of it.” Mallard chafes at what he says is misinformation and speculation that has been spread about the case in the ensuing years. Those who question the verdict, he says, simply don’t know the evidence. He says he was never worried about the outcome. “I had no thoughts he would be acquitted.”

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