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Q+A

Mary Sue Welcome

Uli Loskot

By Christina Royster-Hemby | Posted 6/8/2005

Twenty-six years ago, Mary Sue Welcome was an Atlanta attorney tackling the case of her career—defending accused child killer Wayne Williams. Williams’ arrest and ultimate conviction for two murders in 1982 ostensibly ended a two-year serial-killing rampage that terrorized Atlanta residents as more than 30 young African-Americans, mostly young men and boys, were found strangled, stabbed, or asphyxiated, many of them partially clothed. Welcome, now 62 and living in West Baltimore, has always maintained that Williams’ conviction was a case of rush to judgment. Now DeKalb County Police Chief Louis Graham has reopened five of the cases for which police previously presumed Williams responsible. Welcome, the daughter of the deceased Baltimore civil-rights activist and state Sen. Verda Welcome, took a phone call from City Paper to talk about her family history and the trial that changed her life.

 

City Paper: With the formation of a cold-case squad to reopen the cases of five of the victims allegedly slain by Wayne Williams in DeKalb County, Georgia, do you feel vindicated?

Mary Sue Welcome: My position has always been that Wayne just was not proven guilty by competent evidence.

 

CP: What is “competent” evidence?

MSW: [Evidence that is] clear and convincing. The jury was convinced not necessarily by the evidence, but by the circumstances. They were told that the killings had stopped, for instance—that there had been no killings since Wayne was arrested. That’s not necessarily so. The jury was led to believe that, just in case he was guilty, you’d better convict him because the killings have stopped.

 

CP: But he was found guilty . . .

MSW: He was found guilty, but not proven guilty. And certainly not guilty of killing all of the children that [people] were attributing to him. And he was not found guilty of killing children anyway, just found guilty of killing two grown men—ages 21 and 27. [These men had] much larger, bigger frames. They were not the kind of people you would think he could overpower.

 

CP: Why you have always thought Wayne Williams is innocent?

MSW: If we look at the history of high-profile cases, they normally take a year or more before they go to trial, because of the nature of the case and the need for investigation by the defense [team] and preparation for trial. But in this case, Wayne was arrested in June of 1981. By December 27, he was on trial.

It’s what I call a trial by ambush. There’s no way we could have prepared the kind of case we needed to prepare without having more time. We objected, and still the courts, the prosecution, and the FBI pushed forward. We had motions that we needed to file, but the defense team—which was me and another lawyer named Al Binder—did not have money. And the judge refused to allocate funds to us to fund the defense.

 

CP: Why did Wayne Williams pick you to defend him?

MSW: I had been sort of high profile in some of the things I was involved in, like getting rid of prostitution in downtown Atlanta and closing bathhouses and massage parlors that were inundating the city, that were primarily money laundering businesses for the Mafia. And this was with the threat of the Mafia on my life. So [Wayne] . . . said he needed someone who was not afraid of the political powers that be.

 

CP: What were the roadblocks you faced in preparing the defense?

MSW: There was a lot of evidence to wade through. We had fiber evidence, blood evidence, and a list of witnesses from the prosecution that was in the thousands.

In order for us to prepare, we normally go out and talk with [the potential witnesses for the prosecution] to prepare our cross-examination. That takes manpower, and if you don’t have people who volunteer to be investigators, you have to pay [for them]. Mind you, the prosecution only had Fulton County, the Atlanta Police, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, various surrounding jurisdictions, and the FBI to help them prepare their case. We had to go to court and say, “Your honor, there’s no way that they were going to call 3,000 potential witnesses, who may or may not be used by the prosecution, therefore why give us a list of 3,000?”

 

CP: Were you surprised to get a guilty verdict in the case?

MSW: Though not surprised, I was disappointed. The jury came back very quickly. But under the circumstances I understood why they did.

For example, like I said, they were led to believe that once he was arrested the murders had stopped. That was not the case—the police just stopped adding people to the list of missing and murdered once Wayne was arrested to give the impression that no new children were dying.

They picked and chose the ones they decided to attribute to [Wayne], and they left the women out. They said, “We suspect that he killed the others,” in order to convict him with the two that [they could] prove. And if you think logically about it, if we have difficulty trying to prepare a defense for the two he was charged with, how much more difficult do you think it would be to prepare for the unknowns?

[In addition, there were] police officers [who were] not available to us. We weren’t even able to issue subpoenas to police officers. We had to go to the federal court to give us the right to subpoena FBI agents—that was denied. We tried to get the FBI agent in charge [of the investigation] at the time. It was his opinion that there were at least three or four different patterns involved in these killings.

 

CP: How is it possible that such an important case could have been rushed?

MSW: Because this case had received so much international coverage because of the bat patrol—people who were patrolling their neighborhoods with bats—and the Guardian Angels were there. Most [black] people thought and believed that blacks don’t kill their children serially. There was no way they felt that a black person had committed these crimes. So if you were a white person driving through an African-American neighborhood during those days, you were at risk. There were cars that were stoned, and there was a fear among the powers that be that white people would get hurt and that violence would erupt. There was a fear that Atlanta would be burned again, or there would be race riots. Even though it was a black [civic] administration, it was still white money that controlled Atlanta. Atlanta was hot—it was very riot-prone—and this was the only way to stop it.

 

CP: If Wayne Williams is innocent, why was he linked with the fibers on two of the victims?

MSW: The fact that fibers have been in a particular location only means there had been some transference somewhere. The way crime lab functions, all of the [clothing from the] victims they collected were in one big pile, so it was contaminated.

Then we had a difficult time finding experts. We called manufacturers of those fibers, and the fiber experts said, “We can’t talk to you,” because they had already been contacted by the prosecution. That left us with who?

 

CP: Did you do anything to try to prove his innocence after the conviction?

MSW: I did not participate in his appeal. [1982] was a long year of my life. I did not choose to go forward.

 

CP: What is the impact of Chief Louis Graham reopening some of the cases?

MSW: When I knew him—he was with the Fulton County Police—he told me back then in ’82 or ’83 that he did not believe that Wayne was guilty—certainly not of killing all of these kids. I asked him if he would testify, but he refused because he didn’t really have any concrete evidence. And even if he did, his job would be in jeopardy. So for those who think what he’s doing is politically motivated, it’s not. He’s just in a position to do this right now, looking at the uncharged crimes that were in his jurisdiction.

If he found evidence to support another suspect or other persons other than Wayne, this would not set aside Wayne’s conviction. There would be a reason to go in and ask for a new trial based upon newly discovered evidence or argue on appeal. So it would have an indirect impact on Wayne’s case. Or it could be a basis by which he could get up for parole.

CP: If Wayne Williams didn’t kill those children, who did?

MSW: Who knows? But there is reason to believe that some of this was drug-related—some [of the] kids were believed to be used as mules or male prostitutes. There was a theory that it was a police officer because of where the bodies were placed: right on the county line. It would take someone who knows the county and city jurisdictions to know where to place the bodies [like that].

 

CP: Growing up the daughter of Verda Welcome, did you feel that there was an additional level of responsibility to succeed or hold public office?

MSW: Yes, as a matter of fact I received a lot of pressure. Especially after my mother passed. One of the reasons that I left Baltimore was I wanted to succeed on my own merits, rather than the name. And this was perhaps not the wisest thing, but growing up you say, “I want to succeed on my own ability.” While many people do quite well by riding on the coattails of a name—and there’s nothing wrong with that—I felt compelled to make it on my own.

 

CP: Do you have any plans for public office?

MSW: No. I did run for public office after my mother died. I ran for her seat in the state Senate unsuccessfully. I did give into the pressure, and that was not the wisest choice.

 

CP: If we say that she was Verda Welcome the politician, you are Mary Sue Welcome the . . . attorney? Advocate?

MSW: I think I did what I wanted to do when I first decided to become a lawyer. I wanted to work to right wrongs. I wanted to be an advocate for the less fortunate.

 

CP: What is your response to the ways in which African-Americans have been affected by the criminal justice system in this state?

MSW: I’ll take the politic response—not as good as it should be, but not as bad as I’ve seen it in other places.

 

CP: Given the fact that your own mother once allegedly had a contract out on her life, because she defeated a political machine in Baltimore, did that make you think twice when you were trying to take down Mafia institutions?

MSW: No, it did not. I think I grew up with a fearless background, and unfortunately,while I didn’t have a doctor as a husband to take care of me like my mother did, nonetheless you have to have the strength of your convictions. And that’s what my parents taught me.

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