He’s been a convicted killer for 40 years. Now, Columbus court will decide if racism helped put him in prison
The man convicted 40 years ago of murdering a soldier’s wife in her downtown Columbus apartment has been granted a new trial in a Superior Court ruling that says DNA tests now may exonerate him.
Judge John Allen decided also that prosecutors showed “systematic race discrimination” in picking an all-white jury for Johnny Lee Gates’ 1977 trial.
Allen’s ruling will be appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court, so the saga does not end here.
Gates was convicted and sentenced to death 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 had just married.
Gates has long 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.
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 said 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 a velour belt from her bathrobe. When she said she would identify him to police, he shot her in the right temple with a .32-caliber pistol, he said.
For years after Gates’ conviction, authorities claimed most of the crucial evidence had been lost or destroyed, but in 2015, two interns with the Georgia Innocence Project found the Army ties and a velour belt in a manila envelope in the district attorney’s files.
DNA tests on the belt and a tie yielded profiles that do not match Gates, despite testimony that Wright’s killer would have left such evidence on the fabric while gripping the bindings.
At Gates’ 1977 trial, an investigator for the district attorney’s office said the belt was tied “very, very tightly” around Wright’s hands and wrists and double-knotted. The perpetrator used the tie in a similar manner.
During a May 2018 new-trial hearing on this evidence, Gates’ defense team called a DNA expert, Dr. Mark Perlin, chief executive officer of Cybergenetics, who created a process called TrueAllele to interpret “degraded, low-level, and complex mixtures of DNA,” Allen recounted in his order.
TrueAllele can distinguish profiles that previous testing methods could not. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation has adopted the technology, and Perlin trained GBI staff to use it, Allen noted.
“Dr. Perlin testified that the TrueAllele software determined that Gates is excluded as a contributor to the DNA on the two items of evidence collected at the crime scene,” Allen wrote, noting previous testing yielded inconclusive results.
The prosecution argued Gates’ DNA may have degraded or fallen off the evidence. Noting Perlin’s testimony at the 2018 hearing and the investigator’s testimony about the bindings at Gates’ 1977 trial, Allen discounted that:
“Citing a peer-reviewed study, Dr. Perlin explained that manipulation of the belt and necktie in this manner would transfer a significant amount of DNA from the perpetrator’s hands onto the items.”
Though the DNA degraded over time, “the samples still uniformly yielded informative results that could be and were interpreted reliably by TrueAllele,” Allen wrote.
That alone merits granting Gates a new trial, the judge said, writing that “the DNA evidence is meaningful and exculpatory because it demonstrates that Gates was not the person who bound the victim’s hands.”
He added that the DNA results are “even more concerning given the state’s history of destruction of evidence in this case.”
Authorities destroyed most of the other evidence in 1979, before the state Supreme Court affirmed Gates’ conviction and sentence. Citing GBI records, Allen wrote that all but five items of evidence were discarded on May 2, 1979.
In a footnote, the judge added that the additional evidence discarded included semen samples from the victim’s vagina and cervix, the bathrobe she was wearing and apparent “Caucasion” hairs from the crime scene.
Also destroyed was blood evidence from the scene, which was blood Type B. Both Gates and Wright were blood Type O, Allen said.
An appeals court in 1992 decided Gates was entitled to a trial to determine whether he was intellectually disabled, which would invalidate his death sentence. On the trial’s seventh day, the judge declared a mistrial, and the defense and prosecution agreed to change Gates’ sentence from death to life in prison.
The Georgia Innocence Project joined Gates’ defense in 2015, and moved for DNA testing. Gates also is represented by attorneys from the Southern Center for Human Rights.
On Nov. 27, 2017, Gates amended his new trial motion to claim jury discrimination, and Allen the following January ordered the state to produce prosecutors’ notes from jury selection in six Columbus death-penalty cases against black defendants in the late 1970s.
The results were striking: “The evidence of systematic race discrimination during jury selection in this case is undeniable,” Allen stated, later adding, “The same prosecutors engaged in the same acts of discrimination in all death penalty cases of black males in the Chattahoochee Circuit for the years 1975-1979. The prosecutors then made racially charged arguments to the all-white juries they secured.”
During hearings on this evidence May 7-8, 2018, Gates’ defense team presented prosecutors’ jury selection notes that described prospective black jurors in such cases as “slow,” “cocky,” “con artist” and “hostile.” A handwriting expert said the notes were written by William Smith or Douglas Pullen, both former district attorneys here.
Records showed 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. The notes showed prosecutors marked white jurors’ names with a “W” and black jurors’ with an “N.”
In other cases involving black defendants, the prosecutors labeled black jury candidates with a “B.” Wrote Allen: “These labels were used across multiple cases.”
They also ranked jurors on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 apparently the best choice, as all the potential black jurors in Gates’ case were a 1, and the only one white person who got that ranking was against the death penalty.
Allen noted in particular a scribbled comment regarding a white jury candidate in the trial of William Spicer Lewis, a black teen who was 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.”
Wrote Allen: “Records indicate that from 1975 to 1979, the state brought seven capital cases against black defendants in Muscogee County and struck a total of 41 black prospective jurors. In six of the seven cases, including in Gates’ case, the prosecutors removed every black prospective juror to secure all-white juries.”
In the seventh case, prosecutors ran out of strikes and had to allow one black juror, the judge said.
“The cases included in this period establish that the prosecution’s race discrimination was pervasive and systematic,” Allen wrote.
But the judge said the discrimination issue cannot be grounds for granting Gates a new trial, because the defense raised it too late in Gates’ appeals. “Defendant fails to reasonably account for the delay in bringing forth his motion sooner,” Allen wrote.
Julia Slater, district attorney for the six-county Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit that includes Columbus, said Allen’s ruling will be appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court.
“Although I respect Judge Allen, I disagree with his decision on this case,” she wrote in a text message. “The state will be appealing the court’s ruling.”
Born Nov. 20, 1955, Gates was 21 when a jury convicted him in Wright’s murder. Today he’s 63, and remains incarcerated in the Macon State Prison in Oglethorpe.