WORLD

The ordeal moves to a courtroom

JANE O’HARA January 11 1982
WORLD

The ordeal moves to a courtroom

JANE O’HARA January 11 1982

The ordeal moves to a courtroom

ATLANTA

Sharpshooters sat poised atop the aged Fulton County Superior Courthouse in Atlanta last week, their needle-nosed telescopic rifles peering soundlessly at the crowd below. Inside, almost two dozen police officers patrolled the halls and staircases around the cavernous courtroom as visitors marched through metal detectors and specially trained dogs sniffed for possible explosives. Although security precautions matched those generally afforded a visiting president, the object of this exhaustive search-and-seizure mission was somewhat more infamous. Wayne B. Williams, the man accused in two of the 28 slayings of young Atlanta blacks, was having his first day in court.

After almost two years—the 28 murders occurred from 1979 to 1981—in the two-fisted grip of panic and paranoia, Atlantans are breathing somewhat easier these days. But none looked cooler last week than the pudgy Williams, a 23-year-old freelance news cameraman and on-again, off-again music promoter. Dressed in an open-necked shirt and sleeveless pullover, he stepped into the marbled courtroom, nodded to his parents and impassively took his seat amid a troika of plainclothes deputies. He then watched silently as the laborious process of selecting a jury took place. An initial list of almost 900 names has been drawn up, and it is thought that

the selection of 12 jurors and two to four alternates could take two weeks.

Because of the unprecedented media coverage of the case, Williams’ defence will want to make sure jurors are as unprejudiced as possible, although both of Williams’ attorneys have expressed doubts about the possibility of getting a fair trial in Atlanta—or anywhere else in the U.S. The prosecution, for its part, will also exercise caution in its selection, fearing that the highly complicated technical testimony from expert witnesses could either baffle or bore a jury of Williams’ peers.

Despite an order by Judge Clarence Cooper barring publication of details of the case, the prosecution’s evidence against Williams is thought to be precariously threadbare, resting, as it does, on the scientific validity of dog hairs and threads found both on the bodies of the victims and taken from the carpet and bedspread of Williams’ room in his parents’ Atlanta home.

Because of the nationwide frenzy generated by the slayings, police earlier in their investigation admitted having a “psychological block” against charging anyone unless the evidence was ironclad. For days before Williams’ eventual arrest, Lewis Slaton, the Atlanta district attorney who will personally prosecute the case, argued vehemently against an arraignment until stronger physical evidence had been collected. But political arm-twisting from as far afield as the White House won out.

After the first day of jury selection, the task looked as formidable as predicted. Nineteen potential jurors were dismissed because of prejudicial opin-

ions or because they appeared unable to withstand the rigors of sequestration for the two months the trial is expected to last or the numbing ordeal of hearing the 554 prosecution witnesses.

Meanwhile, as the public performance of justice slowly grinds on in the Fulton courtroom, slowly too are the baseball diamonds, the outdoor basketball courts and the playing fields of Atlanta filling once again with the sounds of children’s voices. Although a curfew for children under 16 is still in force and teenagers still travel in protective packs for fear of “the snatcher,” the community is nearing its catharsis. Said Jan Douglas, executive director of Atlanta’s Community Relations Commission: “The thing uppermost in everyone’s mind is that since Williams’ arrest, the killings have stopped.” JANE O’HARA