Forensic Studies 001: The Atlanta Child Murders

on May 3, 2011 in Forensic Studies, Serial Killers by

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of articles on the usage of forensic sciences to capture serial killers. They are from forensic science masters candidate Michelle Plummer. We’d love to hear what you think of them!

Over a twenty-two-month period beginning in July 1979, thirty African-American children and young men either disappeared or were found murdered in Atlanta. A special Atlanta Homicide Task Force was set up to solve the crimes.

Meanwhile, the police arrested a suspect, a young black man named Wayne Williams. Williams became a suspect because officers, who had a bridge under surveillance, heard a splash about 2:00 A.M. on May 22, 1981. They stopped the only car that had been on the bridge at that time, driven by Williams. A search of his home and car provided numerous fibers similar to those found on the victims’ bodies (Nickell, J, 2010).

Polk (2010) reports, 30 years ago Wayne Williams went on trial for two of many murders. Previous DNA testing was not stable enough to charge him with all of the murders, but now DNA testing is stable which has allowed Wayne Williams to be charged with another murder.

Patrick Baltazar was an 11 year old victim of Wayne Williams that he was not charged for due to the limitations of DNA testing technology. The case was now linked to Williams. Williams not only has denied he killed Patrick Baltazar, but has said he never met the boy.

Criminalist Larry Peterson of the Georgia State Crime Laboratory began to identify distinctive fibers found on the bodies of the victims, and on Baltazar’s clothing. These could be traced to a bedroom carpet in Wayne Williams’ home, his bedspread, a yellow blanket found under that bed, a leather jacket hanging in Wayne’s closet, a gray glove in his station wagon, and dog hairs. Scalp hairs also tied Williams to Patrick Baltazar (Nickell, J, 2010).

Polk (2010) reports, trial scientists proposed that the hairs were consistent with Williams’’ under a microscope but this was only a matter of judgment, not exact science. Scalp hairs were a 98% match with that of Wayne Williams. Of 1,148 African-American hair samples in the FBI’s data base, the FBI said only 29 had the same sequence — in other words, only 2½ out of every 100 African-Americans.

None of the Caucasian or Hispanic hair samples in the data base had this sequence. When those samples are added in the total, then the odds rise to almost 130-to-1 against the hairs coming from any person other than Wayne Williams. Scientists considered the hair and fiber evidence in the Baltazar murder to be among the strongest of their cases (Polk, J. 2010)

Williams also had a German Sheppard. Dog hairs were found on Baltaza’s body. When those dog hairs were sent to a genetics laboratory in the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of California, the report said Sheba, Williams’ dog, had the same DNA sequence. It said that DNA chain would be found in only 1 out of 100 dogs.

Defense lawyers for Williams tried to dispute the DNA testing on the dog hairs which were on the bodies of many of the 27 boys and young men found dead during the two-year murder spree. A judge decided to allow those two hairs found on Baltazar to be sent to the FBI’s DNA laboratory at Quantico, Virginia (Polk, J. 2010).

The defense team also sought to discredit the fiber evidence, arguing that a particular fiber might be in the home or vehicle of any of numerous people. The prosecution challenged that there are a limited number of people with that distinctive type of fiber and of the few, who might have the same carpet and bedspread. How many would also drive a 1970 Chevrolet station wagon as well as own a German shepherd (Polk, J. 2010)?

The type of testing, called mitochondrial DNA, can trace only the maternal line of the dog. Only with nucleic DNA testing, which includes paternal lineage, could the results be absolutely conclusive. Elizabeth Wictum director of the forensic lab reported after comparing dog hairs recovered from five of Williams’ suspected victims—including the two men he was convicted of killing—with dog hairs taken from Williams’ German shepherd mix, Sheba forensic analysts at the UC-Davis lab determined that Sheba could not be excluded as the source of those hairs.

Those matching sequences were mitochondrial DNA (found in the multiple mitochondria which power each living cell), not nuclear DNA (contains more of an organism’s genetic code than mitochondria) extracted from individual cell nuclei. This test is the form of DNA most desirable in forensic testing.

There were ten other deaths presented in this trial. Williams was not charged in any of those, but was convicted of murdering two adults whose bodies were found in an Atlanta river in the spring of 1981. So Williams was now known for killing both children and adults.

Until now, Williams was charged and sentenced for the killing of the two adults, now children are being included with the new DNA testing capabilities. This would create a remembered panic of parents for their children and for themselves.

Soledad Obrien’s CNN special, Atlanta Child Murders (which first aired June 10, 2010), illustrated an in-depth review of a sensational and controversial case which is written in some forensic textbooks such as Crime Science (Nickell, J, 2010).

On February 27, 1982, Wayne Williams was convicted of the two murders (Jimmy Ray Payne, 21, and Nathaniel Cater 28) he was tried for. He was sentenced to life in prison, whereupon Atlanta’s police commissioner closed 21 other murder cases. Ten other slayings of black boys and men were linked to Williams at his trial, and investigations into 24 of the 29 slayings were closed after his conviction. DA Paul Howard states that this testing finally settles the debate over whether Wayne Williams was the Atlanta child killer. “He is,” says Howard (McDonald, R. R. 2007).

The Atlanta Child Murders was said to be first aired on June 10, 2010, but I remember this movie when I was a child. It was in the early 80’s when I first saw the movie. This movie scared me then and still does. I will never leave a window open on the bottom floor over night, allow my kids to dance outside, or let them walk from one place to another alone. This is how Wayne Williams abducted these children. Now there are window allowances for homes that require windows to have stoppers.

Polk, J. 2010. DNA test strengthens Atlanta child killings case. Retrieved on April 25, 2010
Nickell, J.2010. Atlanta Child Murders— Part I: Critical Thinking. Retrieved on April 25, 2010
McDonald, R. R. 2007. DNA tests back DA’s case against Williams Paul Howard: The testing settles the debate over Williams’ guilt in child murders. Retrieved on April 25, 2010


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