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Cold-case squad to probe decades-old Atlanta murders

Police chief still thinks Wayne Williams is innocent

Wayne Williams in a 1991 file photo.
Atlanta (Georgia)

(CNN) -- Saying he believes the man presumed responsible for most of the 29 Atlanta-area murders of boys, young men and two girls between 1979 and 1981 is innocent, a police chief plans to reopen four murder cases.

"Quite frankly, I don't think Wayne Williams is responsible for anything," DeKalb County Police Chief Louis Graham said. "I don't think he did anything. I made up my mind with that 20 years ago, and I still feel that way."

Graham has formed a cold-case squad to look into four young men slain in DeKalb County, east of downtown: Patrick Baltazar, 11; Curtis Walker, 13; Joseph Bell, 15; and William Barrett, 17. They were all killed between February and May 1981.

"At this point, there are just too many open questions," said Graham, who was a member of the multi-agency task force that led to Williams' arrest. "And all I'm trying to do is answer those questions as best we can."

In 1982 Williams, then 23, was convicted and given two life sentences for murdering two men. Afterward, police declared Williams responsible for more than 20 others but never charged him.

Williams, still in prison, has never wavered from his stance that he is innocent of all the killings.

His conviction was controversial, partly because the case against him was circumstantial except for highly technical fiber evidence. Some Atlantans believed Williams was railroaded just to close the case.

Jack Mallard, a former Fulton County assistant district attorney, questioned whether Graham's cold-case squad can objectively investigate the cases, given his pronouncement that Williams is innocent.

"There's no harm in reopening or continuing the investigation of any unsolved murder," Mallard told CNN. "That's done every day. It's just interesting to note that he would come out and eliminate the only person who has ever been convicted in the murders at the same time he's opening up the case."

Mallard remains convinced Williams is guilty.

"There is no doubt whatever -- there was no doubt with the jury, there was no doubt at the time with most everybody in the Atlanta area, including the media, and everybody that was directly involved in the case."

Former assistant Atlanta police chief Chet Dettlinger told CNN he was glad the cases were being reopened and sided with Graham.

"I do agree with Louie that Wayne Williams didn't kill anybody," he said. But Graham, he said, believed at the time the Ku Klux Klan may have been involved, and Dettlinger disagreed.

"I don't know if Wayne Williams is innocent or not," he said. "I just don't think they proved him guilty of anything."

Former Williams prosecutor Joseph Drolet said reopening the cases might yield some additional information, particularly regarding the participation of others, but "I'm not sure it's going to change anything in regard to the evidence against Wayne Williams."

Dettlinger said he wasn't sure exactly what the cold-case squad members planned to do, other than look through old records. Many of those who may have played a role in the case could be dead now, he said. Applying new technology is one technique, he said, but "I don't know how DNA would help.

"Wayne Williams was not convicted of killing these four people," Dettlinger said, referring to the boys. Instead, the cases were "administratively cleared." Still, he said, "it may find some answers, because there are answers out there."

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