Richard Wayne McWilliams
Photo: Fulton County Sheriff's office
Photo: Fulton County Sheriff's office

Voice from the grave helps convict Coweta man of killing girlfriend

Richard Wayne McWilliams would be genial and generous when sober, but he was a mean drunk who beat her, Kathleen Baxter told friends.

She apparently, however, could not resist the Coweta County man. Instead of leaving him for good even after a bruising New Year’s Day, Baxter always returned.

That is until a weekend getaway to Atlanta in 2012.

Baxter, 59, died after receiving a “blunt-force” brain injury in downtown Atlanta’s Peachtree Westin hotel Oct. 13, 2012. McWilliams, now 58, told police Baxter’s head had collided with an elevator door while they were partying.

Baxter’s journal told another story. “If something happens to me, Wayne did it.”

By the end of the day, the jury believed the voice from the grave.

McWilliam’s murder case that unfolded in Fulton County court this week highlighted an endemic crime that once helped prompt Prohibition — drunken men beating women. It again raised the question of why women stay in such an abusive relationship

The testimony stunned staffers and officials listening in Superior Court Judge Henry Newkirk’s courtroom because Baxter was not an isolated woman, trapped in a marriage with kids and unfamiliar with the legal system.

Rather she was a court reporter — a staffer who transcribes the testimony of often tedious or terrifying things. Her colleagues, associates and friends were judges, prosecutors, deputies, cops and lawyers: people who knew how to use the law as both shield and sword.

Baxter did not turn to the system. Instead, according to testimony, she told her friends and family she could handle McWilliams. Despite protests by people who loved her, she came to Atlanta with him for a weekend, promising she would keep them posted about their doings on Facebook. She would stay safe.

That was even after she documented her bruises after a New Year’s Day attack and posted on Facebook that nobody should have to endure such treatment.

“She hoped and prayed she could fix him,” John Caldwell, a prosecutor for Fulton County, told jurors in closing arguments Friday. “She was going out with Dr. Jekyll, who was a good guy, but … who had this dark side, Mr. Hyde.”

Her last Facebook posting was about 8 p.m. after a series of whisky drinks at Hooters and the Hard Rock Cafe.

She took a picture of the downtown lights from the window in her room in the Westin. The reflection in the glass showed McWilliams laying on the bed.

A day later as she lay in the hospital, McWilliams would tell police he tried to stop her from leaving. He contended she had taken a four-foot spill into an elevator door.

The cops — nor the doctors — didn’t believe him. The blood on the elevator’s keypad was one of their first clues.

Domestic violence victims are often hard to understand, prosecutor Caldwell said. He reminded jurors that Amanda Planchard, an expert on domestic violence, testified that Baxter was likely a kind woman who was too good-hearted for her own good. A woman who saw good in McWilliams and tried to control the bad.

She wasn’t the first. Two other women testified of their own history of violence with McWilliams.

One had dated McWilliams before Baxter. She talked about how she escaped once after being held at gunpoint for hours by him while he threatened a murder suicide.

Another woman, a gospel singer, testified that she began dating him after Oct. 13, 2012.

She noticed the GPS-monitor on his ankle. He told her was out on bail after being charged with murdering his girlfriend. She stayed with him anyway — at least for awhile. She told jurors she still cared for him

On Friday afternoon, the Fulton County jury, divided between men and women, began deciding whether McWilliams is guilty of murder or manslaughter or the victim of prosecutorial overreach.

His lawyer, Thomas Michael Martin, told jurors they would have to conclude McWilliams’ story couldn’t be valid to convict him. An expert witness, a veteran of Georgia courts, had testified Baxter’s injuries were consistent with a fall. Caldwell noted the witness’ $5,000 fee, but Martin argued the prosecutors could not rebut him.

“Wayne has been consistent from day one,” Martin said. “They want to talk about possibilities. This is not a case about possibilities.”

At the end of the day the jury convicted McWilliams of murder. Newkirk sentenced him to life in prison.