SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — Georgia’s highest court ruled Friday that an inmate serving a life sentence for a slaying 43 years ago deserves a new trial after recent DNA tests cast “significant doubt” on his guilt.
Johnny Lee Gates, 63, was convicted of murder, rape and robbery in the November 1976 fatal shooting of 19-year-old Katharina Wright in a Columbus apartment where she lived with her husband, an Army soldier at nearby Fort Benning. Wright’s hands were bound with the white belt from her bathrobe, and black neckties were used as a gag and blindfold.
The state Supreme Court’s ruling upholds a January 2019 decision by a lower court ordering a new trial for Gates, citing testing that showed Gates’ DNA was not on the fabric used to bind Wright. The judge also found that prosecutors at Gates’ trial purposely excluded black jurors, but said that evidence came too late for consideration as grounds for a new trial.
Attorneys for the state appealed the decision by Muscogee County Superior Court Judge John Allen. They argued the judge had “abused his discretion” by concluding the DNA evidence would likely have produced a different verdict.
The state Supreme Court found the judge had good reason to find the DNA evidence compelling. Justice Charles J. Bethel wrote in the high court’s decision that prosecutors made a strong case at Gates’ 1977 trial, where evidence included two confessions by Gates — including one on videotape — and an eyewitness who placed Gates at the scene of the slaying.
“Nevertheless, the newly discovered DNA evidence now available to Gates casts significant doubt on the State’s theory that Gates was the perpetrator,” Bethel wrote. The decision said the DNA testing “directly undermines Gates’ connection to a central assumption of the State’s case: that the person who bound Wright’s hands was the same person who murdered her.”
District Attorney Julia Slater did not immediately respond to an email and phone message seeking comment Friday.
“We are incredibly grateful to the Georgia Supreme Court for today’s ruling,” said Clare Gilbert, executive director of the Georgia Innocence Project, one of the legal groups representing Gates.
Gates was convicted and sentenced to death in August 1977. The sentence was later changed to life in prison without parole because he was found to be intellectually disabled. It’s against state and federal law to execute people with intellectual disability.
Gates long maintained his innocence in handwritten court filings.
Two interns with the Georgia Innocence Project went to the district attorney’s office in July 2015 to review the case file. Police and prosecutors had previously said there was no physical evidence to test, and the interns expected to find documents saying the evidence in the case had been destroyed or to find nothing at all.
But one of them found a lumpy manila envelope that said it contained a bathrobe belt and neckties. Inside were pieces of white and black fabric.
Innocence Project lawyers asked a judge to allow the items to be tested, saying the killer’s DNA would have rubbed off on them while the killer was tying up Wright. After the testing, Gates’ lawyers presented evidence at a hearing last year that showed his DNA was not on the items.
The Southern Center for Human Rights, along with the Innocence Project, last year argued that Gates was also entitled to a new trial because prosecutors in the judicial circuit where he was tried purposely and systematically excluded black jurors from the trials of black men facing the death penalty in the late 1970s.
Gates, who is black, was convicted by an all-white jury. The court last year ordered the state to turn over prosecutors’ jury selection notes.
Gates’ attorneys discovered that prosecutors had written “W” next to the names of white prospective jurors and “N” next to the names of black prospective jurors and also put dots in the margins next to black prospective jurors’ names, they said in a court filing in March. Black prospective jurors were described in the notes as “slow,” ”old + ignorant,” ”cocky,” ”con artist,” ”hostile” and “fat.”