While television often offers pseudoscience and fantasy instead of lessons in critical thinking (consider shows like The Ghost Whisperer), there are noteworthy exceptions. One is Soledad O’Brien’s CNN special Atlanta Child Murders (2010). This thorough, objective review of a sensational and controversial case by an award-winning journalist gave short shrift to psychic claimants and provided further evidence against the convicted serial killer Wayne Williams. As it happens, I had also researched the Atlanta murder mystery and presented it as a case study in my forensic textbook, Crime Science (Nickell and Fischer 1999).
During a period of twenty-two months beginning in July 1979, thirty African American children and young men in Atlanta either disappeared or were found murdered. The string of senseless killings made national and international headlines. In time, in response to public pressure, a special Atlanta Homicide Task Force was created to solve the crimes. The case even attracted then–President Ronald Reagan, who was characterized by one source as “hardly the black community’s most sensitive friend”; in fact, he pledged $1.5 million in federal funds to assist the investigation (Fido 1993, 283).
The case proved complicated, in part because the murders did not always have the same modus operandi, especially regarding manner of death. Thus, early on, detectives believed they were looking for multiple suspects (Fisher 1995, 142).
The Fiber Evidence
As the task force’s work progressed, criminalist Larry Peterson of the Georgia State Crime Laboratory began to identify distinctive fibers found on the victims’ bodies. Among these were yellowish-green nylon fibers and violet acetate fibers—in all, twenty-eight different fibers plus dog hairs were recovered.
In the meantime, the police arrested a young black man named Wayne Williams as a suspect in the homicides. Officers who had a bridge under surveillance heard a splash at about 2:00 AM on May 22, 1981, and stopped the only car that had been on the bridge at that time, which was driven by Williams. A search of his home and car provided numerous fibers similar to those found on the victims’ bodies. In addition, witnesses testified that they had seen Williams with some of the victims, and of course there was the fact that after his arrest the murders ceased.
At trial, Williams’s defense attorneys sought to discredit the fiber evidence, arguing that a particular fiber might be discovered in the vehicle or home of any of numerous people. But the prosecution challenged the jury to consider the limited number of people who would have the particular carpet that was the source of one distinctive type of fiber; out of those, they asked, how many could also be expected to have a particular bedspread that was the source of light green cotton fibers blended with violet acetate fibers? And of the few who might have the same carpet and bedspread, how many would also drive a 1970 Chevrolet station wagon as well as own a German shepherd? And so on. During the time when Williams was known to have been using a rented car, fibers that could be matched to that car’s carpeting were discovered on victims’ bodies.
The jury understood the evidence, and on February 27, 1982, they convicted Wayne Williams of the two murders for which he was tried. He was sentenced to life in prison, whereupon Atlanta’s police commissioner closed twenty-one other murder cases (Nickell and Fischer 1999).
Later that same year, at an international microscopy conference at which I was a presenter along with Larry Peterson, I was able not only to see the criminalist’s impressive presentation of the fiber evidence but to discuss it with both Peterson himself and world-famous microanalyst Walter McCrone (best known for discovering paint pigments on the Shroud of Turin). McCrone had been called on to review Peterson’s work on the Williams case and had done so favorably.
In 1998, after Williams’s lawyers argued that prosecutors had withheld evidence in the case, Georgia circuit judge Hal Craig upheld the convictions. He termed the fiber evidence “the strongest scientific link in this case.” As a result of Soledad O’Brien’s new, in-depth look at the Atlanta child murders, Williams’s guilt not only seems well established, but there is even new evidence. The DNA from two human hairs found inside one victim’s shirt excludes some 98 percent of people in the world, yet it is consistent with the DNA of Wayne Williams who, according to experts, “cannot be excluded.”
During the Atlanta child murders case that ended with the arrest and conviction of Wayne Williams, something of a parallel “investigation” took place. As Soledad O’Brien reported, the Atlanta Homicide Task Force was inundated with sketches of the alleged serial killer—no two alike—many of them offered by psychics. For example, my friend and fellow skeptic, the late Henry Gordon, told of appearing on a television talk show in Montreal with self-styled Ottawa intuitive Earl Curley. Curley boasted he had been called in on the child murders case by the FBI for whom he provided a composite drawing and descriptive profile, implying that his input resulted in the apprehension of Wayne Williams shortly thereafter. In fact, Gordon (1994, 24) called the FBI’s Press Information Office and was told, “Mr. Earl Curley contacted our Atlanta office (voluntarily) in 1980 and 1981. He sent in some kind of writeup of what he thought the subject would look like, and he sent in some kind of drawing. However, there was no impact on the case as a result of what he sent in.”
The psychics were merely a sideshow to the circus atmosphere that prevailed in Atlanta at the time. Along with Williams’s bold, defiant antics, “psychics were swarming around, all giving their own ‘profiles,’ many dramatically contradicting each other,” stated pioneer criminal profiler John Douglas (Douglas and Olshaker 1995, 211).
Alleged clairvoyant Dorothy Allison, in her day the most famous “police psychic” in America, traveled to Atlanta in 1980. While riding around in a limousine, Allison made numerous pronouncements about the case. Nothing she said was of any help, however, and one mother complained that the clairvoyant failed to return her only photo of her missing son. Forensic professor Walter Rowe (1994, 238) charged that Allison “provided police with 42 different names, none of which was Wayne or Williams.” Although some sources claim she did include the name Williams, the chief of police denied it, and in any case there were 6,913 persons of that surname in the Atlanta phone book at the time (Dennett 1994, 51–52).
In cases in which psychics like Allison do appear successful—aside from making generalizations or actually having inside information (as from a tip)—they are usually relying on what is called “retrofitting” (or after-the-fact matching). For instance, as a New Jersey Police captain said of Allison, her predictions “were difficult to verify when initially given.” He added, “The accuracy usually could not be verified until the investigation had come to a conclusion” (qtd. in Dennett 1994, 46). To see how this works, suppose the psychic saw water and the number seven: after the facts are in, some stream or body of water can usually be associated with the case, and the number linked to a highway, distance, number of people in a search party, or some other possible interpretation. Then again, some psychics falsely claim successes, while others have engaged in attempted bribery or impersonation of police to seek information they could pass off as mystically acquired (Nickell 1994).
As demonstrated by the Atlanta Child Murders case, psychics are absolutely no help whatsoever in identifying serial killers or providing any breaks in these cases. Instead, Wayne Williams was stopped and brought to justice due to diligent police work—primarily the bridge-stakeout strategy and the use of forensic science (fiber comparison and, more recently, DNA analysis). There was one other factor: a jury was able to understand and assess the evidence using critical-thinking skills.
Dennett, M. 1994. America’s most famous psychic sleuth: Dorothy Allison. In Nickell 1994, 42–59.
Douglas, J., and M. Olshaker. 1995. Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crimes Unit. New York: Scribner.
Fido, M. 1993. The Chronicle of Crime. New York: Carroll and Graff.
Fisher, D. 1995. Hard Evidence. New York: Dell.
Gordon, H. 1994. The man with the radar brain: Peter Hurkos. In Nickell 1994, 21–29.
Nickell, J., ed. 1994. Psychic Sleuths: ESP and Sensational Cases. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books.
Nickell, J., and J.F. Fischer. 1999. Crime Science: Methods of Forensic Detection. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky.
O’Brien, S. 2010. Atlanta Child Murders. CNN television special, first aired June 10.
Rowe, W.F. 1994. Psychic detectives: A critical examination. In Nickell 1994, 236–244.