Wednesday, June 27, 2007
DNA tests back DA’s case against Williams
Paul Howard: The testing settles the debate over Williams’ guilt in child murders
By R. Robin McDonald, Staff Reporter
DNA TESTS ON SEVEN dog hairs that were part of the forensic case against Wayne Williams strengthen the evidence that prosecutors used to tie Williams to 12 murders at his 1982 trial, Fulton County District Attorney L. Paul Howard Jr. said Tuesday.
But a Williams lawyer who attended Howard’s news conference insisted that while the results don’t help his client, neither do they provide a conclusive link to Williams.
The tests were conducted at the request of Williams’ defense team by the Veterinary Genetics Laboratory at the University of California-Davis—one of the foremost forensic veterinary labs in the world.
DA Paul Howard: “This testing finally settles the debate over whether Wayne Williams was the Atlanta child killer. He is.”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, shortly after his arrest 26 years ago, forensic analysts at the UC-Davis lab determined that Sheba could not be excluded as the source of those hairs, according to a report sent to Howard by Elizabeth Wictum, director of the forensic lab, last Friday.
The DNA tests found that DNA sequences obtained from each of the hairs recovered from five bodies and from Sheba’s hair were the same, according to the report. Those matching sequences were mitochondrial DNA, not nuclear DNA extracted from individual cell nuclei.
The difference is significant because, according to the report, while mitochondrial DNA (found in the multiple mitochondria which power each living cell) is more abundant in biological material than nuclear DNA, its precision in terms of an exact match is much less because it reflects only the maternal lineage. Nuclear DNA contains more of an organism’s genetic code than mitochondria. As a result, it is the form of DNA most desirable in forensic testing.
Vet lab analysts found 12 other matches to the Williams hairs in their own mitochondrial DNA database, which is comprised of DNA from 1,219 dogs representing 172 established breeds as well as a group of mixed-breed dogs. According to the report, on average, one out of every 100 dogs tested would reflect the same mitochondrial DNA profile as Sheba and the evidentiary hairs.
The mitochondrial DNA match among the dog hairs tested in the Williams case does not allow forensic analysts to narrow identification to a single animal, explained George Herrin, the deputy director of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation crime laboratory. UC-Davis analysts performed the DNA tests after consultation with representatives of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation crime lab and the Innocence Project of Georgia. The laboratory was selected by defense lawyers whose experts also consulted in the comparison tests.
The mitochondrial DNA sequences could have eliminated Williams’ dog as the source of the dog hairs found on the victims that were linked to Williams at his trial. That is the result Williams’ defense lawyers hoped for.
When Williams was tried in 1982, DNA testing was not in use in criminal trials, and the technology had not been developed to conduct animal DNA tests.
On Tuesday, at a live news conference at the studios of WVEE-FM and WAOK-AM, Howard said that Williams’ lawyers had petitioned the court to conduct the DNA tests in January because, “His lawyers believed that the DNA tests would show, finally, whether Wayne Williams was the Atlanta child murderer.”
Williams’ attorneys “were right in their prediction,” Howard continued. “All seven hairs tested are the same as Sheba’s. … Even though the tests identified mitochondrial DNA sequencing, the tests were not inconclusive as some have already started to spin. The tests conclusively prove the animal hair collected from the five crime scenes and the five bodies of the five victims was the same as Sheba’s.
“This testing finally settles the debate over whether Wayne Williams was the Atlanta child killer. He is.”
Howard acknowledged that the “horrific” series of 29 slayings, mostly of young black men and boys, between 1979 and 1981, has captivated Atlanta since Williams’ 1981 arrest. Williams has long been considered by law enforcement authorities to be the serial killer who stalked and terrorized Atlanta for two years, leaving in his wake a string of mangled bodies. The cases collectively became known as Atlanta’s child murders.
Williams was eventually convicted of the murders of two adults, Jimmy Ray Payne, 21, and Nathaniel Cater, 28. 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.
A chain of forensic evidence recovered from the victims and matched against evidence taken from Williams’ home and car linked Williams to his victims. That evidence included hundreds of cloth fibers, many of them considered uncommon, the dog hairs that were recently tested for DNA, two human scalp hairs recovered from the body of an 11-year-old victim that were a physical match to Williams’ scalp hair, and bloodstains from Williams’ car that matched the blood and enzyme types of two suspected victims that had been stabbed.
Comparative DNA testing of the scalp hairs and a third pubic hair recovered from the body of 11-year-old Patrick Baltazar with those of Williams are currently under way at the FBI crime lab, Howard said. However, like the recently tested dog hairs, the human hairs do not contain nuclear DNA. That means the results cannot conclusively identify Williams as the killer.
Howard said bloodstain samples from a seat in Williams’ car couldn’t be found, eliminating the possibility of establishing that link to Williams. “The blood that was used during that period of time is not available for testing,” Howard said. “It’s gone.”
A serologist, whose job it is to test blood and bodily fluids, tested the bloodstains prior to Williams’ trial and cut them from his car seat, according to GBI analyst Larry Peterson, who constructed the forensic case against Williams. Those bloodstained swatches have disappeared and a search of the GBI lab has failed to locate them, Peterson said.
Veteran prosecutor Jack E. Mallard, who led the prosecution of Williams, appeared with Howard at Tuesday’s news conference. Afterwards, he said that the independent laboratory testing at UC-Davis strengthens testimony about the forensic evidence that was introduced at Williams’ trial. At the trial, Peterson testified that the hairs recovered from Williams’ dog and those recovered from 11 of 12 slaying victims whose deaths figured in Williams’ prosecution, appeared physically consistent when examined under a microscope.
“This is more powerful because you cannot exclude Wayne Williams” as the culprit, Mallard said. “You’ve got five different cases that were handled at different times and different places by different medical examiners. … And lo, and behold, you have the same microscopically appearing hairs.” The new DNA tests, he concluded, “just confirms what we knew all along.”
Mallard said that after 25 years, “it’s time” for the debate over Williams’ guilt to end. “Conspiracy theorists will abound, and they did,” he said. “Today, this evidence should put the last nail in Williams’ coffin, as far as Williams’ guilt in the crime for which he was convicted.”
Lynn H. Whatley, Williams’ longtime defense attorney, appeared at Howard’s news conference where, on live radio, he publicly challenged Howard’s characterization of the DNA results.
“First of all, the conclusions they are making are not correct,” Whatley said. “The findings of the scientists were clearly that they could not exclude Sheba. … This is not a DNA match.”
Although he did not attend Howard’s news conference, Whatley’s co-counsel in the Williams case John R. “Jack” Martin, echoed Whatley’s comments in a later interview Tuesday. Martin previously had released a statement calling the DNA results inconclusive, while acknowledging that they did not exclude Williams’ dog as a possible source of the dog hairs found on the victims.
In an interview Tuesday, Martin explained that experts hired by Williams’ defense team explained the matching mitochondrial sequences and Howard’s declaration that the hairs recovered from the slaying victims were the same as Sheba’s was “like saying phone numbers are the same because they have the same area code.”
But, he said, “I admit it’s bad news for the defense, but it doesn’t end the case. We were very hopeful that this would be the start of reliable DNA evidence showing he’s innocent. It’s not. So we have to go dig deeper. We are much more hopeful about the [human] hair testing because … there’s better science. … If it comes back that it’s Wayne’s hair, that’s the end of the story. But today’s not the end of the story.”
Staff Reporter R. Robin McDonald can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.