The trial of George Zimmerman began a few weeks ago with the prosecution resting its case last Friday. Like all high profile/high stakes trials, moments and memes have emerged, but what stands out most for me is the man – George Zimmerman. There he sits: sad eyes, hangdog expression, portly and unassuming. The last person you would expect to see charged with 2nd degree murder and a far cry from the intense, lupine, almost predatory man we saw a little over a year ago. Today he looks like a man swept along by the tide of history rather than his own actions and I cannot help but be reminded of a similar figure from my childhood. Another pudgy, nonthreatening, and baby-faced man charged with heinous crimes: Wayne Bertram Williams.
Between 1979 and 1981, 29 children and young adults were abducted and murdered in my hometown of Atlanta, Georgia. The bodies were discovered in vacant lots, wooded areas and occasionally floating in the Chatahoochee River. Most had been strangled. Some showed signs of sexual assault. The oldest victim was twenty eight. The youngest was nine. The victims were all black and plucked from some of Atlanta’s poorest communities: Techwood Homes, Bowen Homes, East Lake Meadows, and many others.
The killings reached a fever pitch in the Spring of 1981, with bodies being discovered on a weekly basis in the months of April and May. Then late one night an officer patrolling the Jackson Parkway bridge, heard a splash and along comes a white Chevy station wagon driven by a bespectacled, portly young man named Wayne Williams. The patrolman pulled him over and after first asking ‘What’s this all about?’, Williams replied to his own question “I know. This must be about those boys.”((132, Headley)). And thus began the end of the Atlanta Child Murders and the beginning of the investigation of Wayne Williams.
George Zimmerman is, of course, not a serial killer and his crimes are not on par with those of Williams, but his profile mirrors that of Wayne Williams – and a few others – in ways that I think are worth examining. Detectives found it odd, for example, that after his initial arrest and release, Williams hung out at the police station attempting to talk shop with them, but it turned out not to be unusual at all because like Zimmerman, Williams was obsessed with police work.
Several years before his arrest for murder, Wayne Williams had been arrested for impersonating a police officer, yet he continued with the ruse: buying a police surplus vehicle; installing a police light; and using his own police scanner so that he could get to crime scenes first and take photographs. He owned a German shepherd, the canine of choice for Atlanta police at the time. And when celebrities, politicians, and other luminaries put on a fundraiser at the Omni to raise money for the victims of the Atlanta Child Murders, guess who was on record as having applied to work there as a security guard? Wayne Williams.
We see glimpses of George Zimmerman in the above: his failed attempts to get on the police force; his admiration and hostility toward actual policeman; his refusal to follow the suggestion of police dispatchers when told he did not ‘need to [follow Trayvon Martin]’, but the similarities do not end there. They share another common and disturbing character trait – extreme racial and class hostility.
When the Atlanta Child Murders were occurring, local black Atlantans – and even some FBI agents – were convinced that the crimes were racially motivated and being organized by some hate group, so when Wayne Williams, a black man from a respected family, was arrested many were skeptical if not outraged. Yet, Williams would come to prove their initial assumptions about the motives for the killings were at least partly true.
Interviews with Williams’ co-workers revealed a man who was resentful of being black and spoke disparagingly of the black poor in particular, and like Zimmerman and his surrogates, Williams’ own press remarks did not do much to counter this perception. After announcing to the world, before the police did, that he was the prime suspect in the Atlanta Child Murders, Williams went on to disparage the victims and their families. The children he said were likely in places they had ‘no business being’; many local children had no ‘home supervision’ and as a consequence were ‘running the streets wild’. When these statements were combined with testimony from a co-worker who claimed that Williams dismissed murder victims as just ‘prostitutes’, the public image of Williams was that of a man with an animus toward blacks.
When Zimmerman was arrested for the murder of Trayvon Martin, many argued that his words and behavior suggested a hatred of blacks akin to that of Williams. While some of his friends and neighbors have challenged this assessment, his family and Zimmerman himself, despite months of coaching have only managed to reinforce it. The best example being his brother, Robert Zimmerman, who first went on Bill Maher and made a reasonable case for his brother’s character, then several weeks later went on Twitter and accused black men of having a genetic predisposition to violence and criminality. A claim Wayne Williams would have likely supported – though with some caveats I imagine.
Like Zimmerman, the Wayne Williams that showed up to face trial in January of 1982, was not the man his peers or the media remembered. Gone was the imperious arrogance that lead Williams to bankrupt, terrorize and even physically strike his father. Gone was the wisecracking scorn for the city’s poor. Gone was the mysterious and bitterly hostile young man who showed up at work occasionally with unexplained scratches on his face and arms. That man was not to be found. What the jury saw that winter was a pudgy, soft, awkward man much like Zimmerman. A man who was ‘sorry’ but not in the way you probably understand it.
James Baldwin wrote one of the most compelling accounts of the Atlanta Child Murders and in describing Wayne Williams’ problems, he uses a term that is familiar to many black southerners: ‘sorriness’. A person that is ‘sorry’ is too lazy to work for the good outcome; too protected to endure the bad outcome; and too arrogant and stupid to appreciate the difference. ‘Sorry’ dudes – and they were almost always dudes – relied on bribery, guilt and package deals to make friends. They were the first kids in your neighborhood to have a VCR. Their mother called your mother and reminded her that you and ‘sorry’ were best friends, so you should hang out more. They showed up tagging along with their cousin or brother who you were actually friends with. There was a 50/50 chance they would be ok to be around, unless there was trouble, then they would sell you out in a heartbeat.
This seems like a small personality trait to consider when discussing heinous crimes, but it helps explain the disconnect between the Zimmerman we saw a year ago and the guy we see sitting in the court room. The insolent arrogance of the ‘sorry’ child often morphs into swaggering bravado in the man, but when it meets resistance -real resistance – it doesn’t just fold or crack. It dissolves so completely that you forget it was ever there. Wayne Williams’ attorney, like Zimmerman’s, understood this well.
Wayne Williams’ perceived weakness was a key plank in his attorney’s defense. He acknowledged readily that Williams had been overindulged, and was a bit of an arrogant screw-up, but argued that a boy raised like him doesn’t become a killer. “You don’t get a killer from a boy raised like that boy was!’, he said. At one point he described how soft Williams’ hands were and had Williams walk over to the jury box, so they could see his hands. “Do you think he could have the strength to kill someone, to strangle someone, with these hands”, he asked the jurors. Zimmerman’s obesity, supposed health issues, and mild-mannered demeanor is intended to illicit similar doubt in the minds of jurors. We know that he has a history of domestic violence and altercations with the police. We know that a relative accused him of sexually molesting her for years. We know he denies some of it and says the other was taken out of context. We know this. What we don’t know is why George Zimmerman got out of his car or better yet which George Zimmerman got out of his car.
Zimmerman’s attorney alluded to this dilemma, when he began his client’s defense with a ‘knock-knock’ joke. This, in his mind, is a case of mistaken identity. The man we see in the courtroom would not dream of initiating a confrontation with a suspicious looking young man. He simply wouldn’t. This is a man pursuing his associates degree and battling chronic back and buttcrack pain. He embraces diversity and loves his black friends. Certainly, he would not approach Trayvon Martin intending to hurt him. Yet he did. He did.
This means that the man sitting before us is a creation of the defense: a lie, but not necessarily a fabrication. He is genuinely terrified. His fear is real. I suspect his pain is real. I think the ache in his buttcrack might be like the beating heart in Poe’s ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’. While he and his surrogates remind us of his innocence, his conscience plagues him, telling a very different story and revealing him to be a very different man.
Profilers and investigators worried that the jury would not see the Wayne Williams that they had seen, so it was important to get him on the stand and talking. He behaved well in the beginning, but the prosecution began badgering him, invading his personal space, challenging him and eventually he erupted. He accused the police of trying to fit him into a profile, the FBI of being ‘goons’, and the prosecution of being fools. The jurors witnessed Wiliams’ transformation first hand, and this was pivotal in getting his conviction.
Zimmerman will of course not take the stand. We know this. Yet we see him. Hopefully, the jury will too.
The Atlanta Youth Murders and the Politics of Race by Bernard Headley
Evidence of Things Not Seen by James Baldwin
Mindhunter by John Douglas