The Atlanta Child Murders were an American tragedy. Anytime a serial killer targets small children it is horrific. What the authorities did after Wayne Williams was convicted of two of the 29 murders was gut-wrenching. They closed all of the murders – slamming the door on the victim’s families. If you watched Netflix’s Mindhunter, it isn’t too far off from the reality.
This short series cracks open the case files as the City of Atlanta starts looking into the cases anew. I came into it hopeful to get a well-rounded documentary series that would give me a solid sense of the crimes, evidence, and witnesses. My expectations were not met – despite the stunning production quality.
It is clear that this series is focused on Wayne William’s being innocent of these crimes, almost the point where they gloss over and downplay the evidence against him. The producers throw a lot of spaghetti against the wall, hoping some of it sticks with the viewers. We get everything from Klan informers to pressures allegedly from the White House to smother the investigation because it was bad for Atlanta’s public image. The producers quickly mention that many of the accounts and alleged killers were cleared by alibi and polygraph, but instead drill in on a web of speculative intrigue that is hard to contemplate.
I wanted something that was balanced, but what I got was something crafted to try and manipulate me. As a true crime author, I know that pushing an agenda is dangerous.
Don’t get me wrong. I strongly doubt that Williams was responsible for all of these murders. That isn’t the same as being innocent. Three of the witnesses against him admitted that they lied, but there were other witnesses, including family members, who saw Williams with some of his victims.
The claim that the fiber evidence was tainted by the FBI overlooks the fact that the GBI did their own analysis and could map fibers and hairs from William’s environment to 23 of the victims. Remember as well that Williams was first on their radar when he was caught on a bridge when a splash was heard in the river, and a body was found a mile downriver days later. He lied about his reason for being out at 2am on that bridge, just as he lied about his music promotion business being a viable entity.
Much of this series is William’s defense team making the pitch that he is innocent. Rather than admit they didn’t do a good job, they point of a vast conspiracy by the prosecution against them and their client. I get it, that’s their job. Again, evidence contrary to their theories is disregarded or ignored by the producers.
Williams revels in the role of victim. He accepts zero responsibility for any of his crimes. That is maddening and sick. Did he kill all 29 victims though? No. I doubt it.
Some of the misdirection presented was obvious. A person claimed a Klan member said he killed one of the victims who had run into his car with a go-cart. In reality the victim was at a shopping center with a family member at the time of his abduction, left alone for only a few minutes. There was no go-cart. No witnesses saw a go-cart. Rather than point that out the producers chose to ignore the inconsistency to plant the seed that this alleged confession was valid.
Material presented said that another victim had been seen with a known pedophile who was named at or near the time of his disappearance. That is useful information, but we don’t know why that individual was excluded at the time. I have spent hundreds of hours of my life reading police reports from that era. Often times in a murder you will get a half-dozen different witnesses who will point out completely different suspects. Investigators run those things down – they want to solve crimes. We don’t know why investigators cleared this individual – either the case files were incomplete or the producers simply didn’t say.
In the middle of all of this is the surviving family members. Some believe Williams is guilty of some of the murders, others believe he is innocent. They have been told so many things over the years, sometimes by those in authority, some appear unsure what to believe. One thing they all share however is the anger and frustration that the authorities arbitrarily closed their cases.
Reopening the cases is good public relations and long overdue with the family members – but it is unlikely to result in new charges or change anyone’s mind in the end. The seeds of doubt were planted decades ago and even compelling evidence for or against Williams is going to change most people’s minds.
Having said that, this was a good and compelling documentary series. You are torn emotionally by the stories and the terrible way that the community and victims’ relatives were treated during all of this. At the same time you get a sense of frustration on the part of the investigators interviewed because most are quite sure they caught the right man. As much as I have taken shots at the approach of the series, I still recommend it.