Authorities have announced new DNA testing on evidence from the Atlanta Child Murders, the collective term for at least 25 African-American children and adults found dead in 1979 through 1981 around metro Atlanta, including in the areas of Brookhaven and Buckhead.
The DNA review follows Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ announcement in her March 14 State of the City address of a task force to study a memorial to the Atlanta Child Murders victims. Bottoms announced the new review of the controversial case on March 21, saying she hopes it will give some “peace” to surviving family members and “let the world know black lives do matter.”
Her announcement – backed by Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields and Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard – came on the eve of a new true-crime documentary series about the case, set to debut March 23 on the Investigation Discovery network. The show, simply titled “The Atlanta Child Murders,” is executive produced by Will Packer, a prominent movie executive who lives in Atlanta and who was a supporter of Bottoms’ mayoral campaign. Packer and the network both immediately issued statements praising the city’s review.
The wave of murders terrorized the city as the victims, most of them boys, began appearing in vacant lots, rivers and wooded areas. One victim who was found in a local area was Patrick Rogers, 16, whose body was discovered in the Chattahoochee River on the Cobb County side of the Paces Ferry Road bridge on Dec. 7, 1980, according to media reports at the time. Another was Patrick Baltazar, 11, who was found dead Feb. 13, 1981 in the Corporate Square office park in what is now the city of Brookhaven.
Wayne Bertram Williams, an African American man, became a prime suspect after police allegedly heard him dump a body off the James Jackson Parkway bridge in northwest Atlanta. In 1982, he was convicted of killing two of the adult victims in the murder wave. Police alleged that evidence connected him to most of the other killings as well, including those of Rogers and Baltazar, but he was never charged with those crimes.
Williams, still serving a life sentence in state prison, has maintained his innocence of any killing. Various police officers, journalists and family members over the years have suggested that other killers are responsible for some or all of the murders, and one theory involves hate crimes by the Ku Klux Klan.
At the time of Williams’ trial, DNA testing did not exist. He and his attorneys have long challenged the forensic evidence that helped to convict him, mostly involving analysis of hairs and carpet fibers. About 10 years ago, a limited form of DNA testing showed that Williams could not be confirmed or ruled out as the source of hairs found on Baltazar’s body, according to media reports. Similar results were reportedly returned for dog hairs found on Baltazar and other victims that authorities alleged came from Williams’ pet.
Bottoms said that Atlanta, state and Fulton County authorities will review all remaining evidence in the Child Murder cases for possible modern DNA testing, and urged other jurisdictions to join the effort. Howard said the Fulton evidence will be reviewed by a new “Conviction Integrity Unit,” apparently modeled on similar programs in other states that allow the review of some convicts’ claims of wrongful conviction.
In a press conference streamed live on social media, Bottoms read the names of more than 30 Atlanta Child Murder era victims and recalled that she was 9 years old when the killing began.
“It robbed us of our innocence and it reminded us all that evil was real,” she said.