He’s been a convicted killer for 40 years. Columbus court will decide if racism put him in prison

Attorneys for convicted Columbus killer Johnny Lee Gates spent hours Monday presenting evidence they say shows prosecutors here in the 1970s exhibited “a systematic pattern of discrimination” in keeping black residents off juries hearing the death-penalty cases of black defendants.

Gates’ defense team also called a handwriting expert to testify prosecutors’ notes that during jury selection in such cases described prospective black jurors as “slow,” “cocky,” “con artist” and “hostile” were written by William Smith or Douglas Pullen, both former district attorneys here.

Gates was convicted in the Nov. 30, 1976, rape and murder of Katharina Wright, 19, found bound and shot in the head in the Broadway apartment she shared with her husband, a Fort Benning soldier the German woman had just married.

Sentenced to death in 1979, Gates since has argued he’s innocent, despite a videotaped confession, an eyewitness who said he saw Gates at Wright’s apartment complex that day, and a fingerprint police say they found at the scene.

The defendant’s mental capacity became an issue in 1992, after Georgia outlawed executing the mentally disabled. After a jury deadlocked while trying to determine Gates’ mental competency in 2003, the prosecution and defense agreed to change his sentence to life in prison.

Still attorneys have sparred over whether Gates got a fair trial in 1977, with the defense citing evidence of Gates’ innocence that prosecutors did not disclose at the time.

Represented Monday by Katherine Moss and Patrick Mulvaney of the Southern Center for Human Rights and Clare Gilbert of the Georgia Innocence Project, the defense argued Gates’ prosecutors routinely discriminated against potential jurors who were black, aiming to pick all-white juries to secure a conviction and a death sentence.

The jury pool in Gates’ case totaled 47, and the state in its preliminary jury strikes eliminated 12 of those. Four black people were in the pool, and Smith and Pullen struck all four.

In the fall of 2017, Gates’ defense attorneys had a law student working as an intern research Gates’ and six other Columbus death-penalty cases tried between 1975 and 1979. The intern found what the defense claims to be a pattern in cases involving Smith and Pullen.

The student found that Pullen over those years had 27 blacks in jury pools for such cases, and struck all 27. He found that Smith had 28 black prospective jurors in those cases and struck 25.

Georgia Assistant Attorney General Sabrina Graham countered the sampling was too limited, and the defense should have looked at other cases involving the prosecutors to establish any credible pattern.

Court precedent

Whether prosecutors intentionally discriminated could be a critical issue because of the 2016 U.S. Supreme Court decision Foster v. Chatman, regarding a Rome, Ga., death-penalty case involving Pullen.

The defendant, Timothy Foster, was convicted of beating, raping and strangling 79-year-old Queen Madge Wright during a burglary on Aug. 28, 1986.

Pullen in 1987 assisted District Attorney Stephen Lanier in Foster’s prosecution. Prosecution notes from jury selection showed black candidates’ names were highlighted in green and marked with an “N” for “No”; the black candidates’ race was circled on jury questionnaires; the black candidates were on a prosecution list of jurors titled “definite NOs”; and beside the name of a black candidate who attended the Church of Christ was the notation, “NO. No Black Church,” with “NO” and “Black” underlined.

In reversing Georgia court decisions upholding Foster’s conviction, the U.S. Supreme Court wrote that “the focus on race in the prosecution’s file plainly demonstrates a concerted effort to keep black prospective jurors off the jury.” Foster was granted a new trial.

The defense in Gates’ case also is citing prosecutors’ written comments during jury selection in the 1970s death-penalty cases it examined, alleging Smith and Pullen kept notes designating potential jurors’ race as “W” or “N,” and at times calling the blacks “slow,” “old+ignorant,” “cocky,” “con artist,” “hostile” or “fat.”

In one case, a black public school teacher was noted as “Hostile,” the word underlined.

The defense also cites a scribbled comment regarding a white jury candidate in the trial of William Spicer Lewis, a black teen convicted of shooting white Columbus police Officer James Bowers in the head during a April 3, 1979, convenience store robbery.

The comment was “born and raised with G.B. and will (be) a top juror. He has to deal with 150 to 200 of these people what works for his construction co.”

Gates’ attorneys called a handwriting expert, Steven Drexler, to confirm the notes were written either by Smith or Pullen. “It was very easy to separate out the two writers,” he testified, saying Pullen had the better penmanship.

The defense claims prosecutors also rated jurors on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the most favored, and routinely ranked black candidates 1.

The DNA tests

Prosecutors have argued Gates’ defense team has waited too late to raise issues regarding evidence that is not newly discovered and should have been addressed in his earlier appeals. Georgia law sets high standards for granting a convict a new trial, and Gates’ attorneys have failed to meet those standards, prosecutors said.

Graham, who is assisting District Attorney Julia Slater and Assistant District Attorney Fred Lewis, said Gates’ lawyers over the years have failed to show “due diligence” in seeking evidence they should have known was available.

Senior Judge John Allen adjourned court before the hearing was finished, so it continues Tuesday. Both sides have yet to address the issue of DNA testing on evidence from Wright’s rape and murder.

Testimony from Gates’ trial showed Wright’s husband left for Fort Benning about 6 a.m. that day, and found his wife slain when he came home for lunch right after noon.

Gates in his confession said he posed as a gas company worker to get Wright to let him in, and she directed him to the apartment’s heater. Gates put some oil on it before he accosted the woman in the bathroom and said he would rob her.

He raped her and forced her to give him $480, then gagged and blindfolded her with her husband's army ties and bound her hands behind her back with the belt from her bathrobe. When she fought back and said she would identify him to police, he shot her in the right temple with a .32-caliber pistol.

For years after Gates’ conviction, authorities thought the evidence had been lost or destroyed, but two Georgia Innocence Project interns in 2015 found the Army ties and a velour belt in a manila envelope in the district attorney’s files.

That evidence has since been tested for DNA, yielding three or four profiles that do not match Gates.

But the prosecution notes DNA testing wasn’t available in 1977, so authorities did not preserve evidence for that procedure. The ties and belt have been handled multiple times by people who weren’t wearing gloves and could have left their DNA on the items, said Lewis, noting that during jury deliberations in Gates’ trial, “the belt went back with the jury.”

Born Nov. 20, 1955, Gates was 21 when a jury convicted him in Wright’s murder. Today he’s 62, and remained incarcerated in the Macon State Prison in Oglethorpe.