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An arrest in Atlanta: But has there been too much pretrial publicity?

One of the early issues likely to be raised in a trial of Wayne B. Williams on charges of murdering one of the 28 young blacks in Atlanta is whether or not he can get a fair trial after massive publicity about him.

His attorney, Mary Welcome, says the question of pretrial publicity is "certainly likely to be an issue" early in the proceedings.

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"He has been tried for murder in the press," she said in an interview with the Monitor. "I certainly question whether he can get a fair trial here or anywhere in this country -- or the world."

Mr. Williams, a 23-year-old black, was arrested June 21 and charged with slaying Nathaniel Cater, the 28th and most recent victim in the string of unsolved murders of young blacks that began in July 1979.

This is the first arrest in any of the cases. But a conclusion to the Atlanta tragedies still seems a long way off. For instance:

In the case of the Cater murder, police apparently are relying heavily on similarities between certain fibers found on the victim and those taken from William's property. But some experts say such evidence normally only helps make a case. Lewis R. Slaton, district attorney for Fulton County (which includes most of Atlanta), reportedly resisted earlier pressures from the Federal Bureau of Investigation to arrest Williams before the latest analyses of fibers was concluded.

Williams was first questioned in May after a police team watching a bridge over the Chattahoochee River heard a loud splash one night and spotted Williams in a car near the bridge. Several of the bodies have been found in the river.

But Williams was released.

Then in early June, after Cater's body had been found downstream from the bridge, Williams was questioned again -- for about 12 hours -- by police. Again he was released but kept under surveillance while technicians continued their analysis of fibers.

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There are still 27 other murders for which no arrests have been made, although district attorney Slaton said he thought the Cater murder was related to about 14 of the others. Yet even conviction on the Cater case would not by itself mean conviction for any others.

Slaton told the Monitor he believes as many as "8 to 10" persons may be involved in the string of murders. And, he says, as many as half the murders may not be related.

Asked June 22 if he decided to go ahead with the effort to prosecute because of pressure from the State of Georgia or from the Reagan administration, which has thrown considerable weight behind the investigation, Slaton said only that "no decision has been made because of pressure or politics."

A spokesman for Vice-President George Bush denied June 22 that Mr. Bush or anyone on his staff had called Georgia Gov. George Busbee (D) on the case prior to William's arrest. Bush has been assigned by President Reagan to keep abreast of the situation.

The prosecution is "keeping its options open" by charging Williams with only one murder, says Albert Pearson, a University of Georgia law professor who has been following the case. But he adds, "If they blow it, going gainst Williams again [on other murder charges] is going to look like harassment."

If the case is based primarily on fibers, it could be a weak one, says Professor Pearson. "The defense attorney may be able to show there are 20,000 people in Atlanta with these fibers," he says.

But both Pearson and Richard Gerstein, former district attorney of Dade County, Fla., (Miami and environs) said it is highly unlikely that Slaton is seeking a trial without having a good case. "He's a top DA," says Mr. Gerstein, who adds he is also impressed by the professionalism of Atlanta Public, Safety Commissioner Lee P. Brown.

Gerstein thinks it may be fairly easy to find jurors who are not so familiar with published details on the case as to diqualify them as jurors. Pearson says prospective jurors tend not to admit during jury selection that they could not make a competent decision.

Slaton says he would oppose a ny defense efforts to move the trial out of Atlanta.

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