A court-ordered DNA test may determine whether Johnny Lee Gates spent 38 years in prison for a Columbus rape and murder he did not commit.
Attorneys with the Georgia Innocence Project, which re-examines old cases for wrongful convictions, has been granted a motion to have the Georgia Bureau of Investigation test evidence from the rape and murder of 19-year-old Katharina Gertrude Wright, whose husband found her dead in their Broadway apartment on Nov. 30, 1976.
She had been bound with a white belt from her bathrobe and some black neckties belonging to her spouse, a soldier who married her while stationed in Germany. Married for six months, they first lived in Arizona upon his return to the United States, then moved to Columbus when he was assigned to Fort Benning.
They had been in Columbus just two weeks when she was in the bedroom of her second-floor apartment at 1:24 p.m.
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Her partially nude body was face-up on the floor next to a door, the white belt binding her wrists behind her back and a black military necktie around her neck. Three other neckties were near her head. She had been raped and shot once in the head with a .32-caliber pistol.
Police said Gates confessed to the crime, but the Innocence Project believes that confession is false.
Gates, who was 21 at the time of the homicide, was convicted Aug. 30, 1977, of fatally shooting Wright after raping her and tying her up in her apartment at 703 Broadway. The building since has been demolished.
Despite his confession, Gates since has maintained his innocence and filed repeated motions seeking a new trial.
According to Gates' motion for DNA testing, police talked to two neighbors who reported seeing a stranger at the apartments that day, but they gave differing descriptions.
A woman said she saw a white man 25 to 30 years old running from the building between noon and 1 p.m. She said he was of medium build, 5-foot-10, and had dark slicked-down hair and a shirt with a flowery design.
A man on the ground floor said a black man of medium build, 5-foot-9 to 5-foot-10, weighing about 170 pounds and wearing a gas company shirt knocked on the door, told the resident he was from the gas company and asked if the neighbor needed his gas turned off.
The investigation took an odd turn when a man known to have a mental disability was caught fondling the murder victim's body at the mortuary. Considered a suspect because he was white and could have been the man the neighbor saw running away the day of the murder, he was questioned.
And he confessed, telling investigators he'd been stalking Wright, and he was the intruder who shot her after tying her to a bedroom door.
But police decided blood at the crime scene did not match his account, and a grand jury acting on a prosecutor's advice declined to indict him on Jan. 5, 1977. The case remained unsolved.
Then Gates and two other men got arrested that month while trying to rob a store, and a police informant told officers he'd loaned Gates a .32-caliber pistol the previous November. The tipster told police Gates claimed to have killed Wright when Gates returned the weapon, which the owner threw into a creek. Police found a gun, but ballistics showed it was not used in the homicide.
Gates' motion for DNA testing says this informant later denied owning a gun or lending one to Gates.
Gates' attorneys question the confession Gates gave police, claiming investigators first took him to the crime scene to explain how they believe Wright was killed, then took him back to the scene the next day to videotape him repeating the scenario they'd given.
Gates' confession gave this sequence of events:
Posing as a gas company employee, he went to the apartment complex and first talked to a man downstairs before going up to Wright's apartment, where he used the same guise. She told him she was expecting someone from the gas company to fix a broken heater, and showed him the heater and gave him a can of oil.
He started to work on the heater, then told the woman he was robbing her, to which she replied she had no money but could offer him sex.
After they had sex, he cleaned himself up in the bathroom and again demanded money, and she gave him $300 from under the mattress and $180 that had been concealed in a reel-to-reel tape. Gates said he rummaged through drawers and other parts of the apartment, then tied the victim up on her bed. He was leaving when she said she could identify him, so he shot her as she sat on the bed.
The defense argues Gates' confession doesn't fit evidence at the crime scene. He said he shot her as she sat on the bed, but the bed had no blood on it, and no blood led from the bed to the bathroom door where her husband found the body.
Police said they found two of Gates' fingerprints on the heater, but nowhere else in the apartment, despite his claiming to have rifled through drawers and washed up in the bathroom. His Innocence Project attorneys maintain Gates' fingerprints on the heater could have been placed there when police brought him to the apartment, first to explain their theory of the crime and then to videotape his confession.
Though the downstairs neighbor picked Gates from a lineup, he could not identify anyone until each man in the lineup was told to say "I'm from the gas company." Yet his initial description did not fit Gates, whose build at the time was small-framed, 5-foot-6 and weighing 130 pounds.
Wright was found clothed in a green sleeveless shirt and a multicolored robe with a checkered pattern. On the robe police found evidence of semen. Though DNA testing was yet to be developed in 1977, investigators could determine the semen came from someone with Type B blood, and assumed it came from Wright's husband, who is Type B. But both Gates and the victim were Type O.
When interns working with Gates' attorneys came looking for any remaining physical evidence this past July, they found in the district attorney's office a manila envelope containing the white velour belt used to bind the woman's wrists as well as black neckties from the crime scene. Also in the envelope were what appeared to be small pieces of cardboard. Because police used cardboard to protect glass slides upon which they placed semen samples, the Innocence Project wants those examined at the crime lab, and any slides found to be tested for DNA along with the white belt and the black ties.
Because Georgia Bureau of Investigation agents and Columbus police officers testified in a 2003 hearing that no evidence from the murder case remained, Gates never sought DNA testing in previous new-trial motions he filed on Oct. 29, 2010; April 15, 2011; May 24, 2012; June 20, 2013; May 27, 2014; and June 27, 2014. Those motions raised other issues such as ineffective counsel, suppressed evidence, illegal warrants and defective indictments.
After hearing testimony in Gates' motion for DNA testing, Senior Judge John Allen ordered the district attorney's office to turn its evidence over to the GBI for the tests. The state will pay for the testing, the judge ordered.