Lawyers debate DNA evidence in convicted Columbus killer’s case at Georgia Supreme Court

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

Attorneys for Johnny Lee Gates presented evidence Monday they say shows prosecutors here in the 1970s demonstrated “a systematic pattern of discrimination” in keeping black residents off juries of death-penalty cases of black defendants.
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Attorneys for Johnny Lee Gates presented evidence Monday they say shows prosecutors here in the 1970s demonstrated “a systematic pattern of discrimination” in keeping black residents off juries of death-penalty cases of black defendants.

Lawyers for a man convicted in the 1976 murder, rape and robbery of a 19-year-old newlywed whose husband was stationed at Fort Benning argued before the Supreme Court of Georgia here Tuesday, contending that modern DNA tests on crucial crime-scene evidence exonerate their client and warrant a new trial.

The victim, Katharina Wright, was bound with her husband’s necktie and the belt from her bathrobe before she was fatally shot in her right temple at the Fountain Court Apartments on Broadway in Columbus on Nov. 30, 1976.

Johnny Lee Gates, who had a sixth-grade education and who was 21 at the time, was jailed two months after the slaying after he confessed to the killing. A fingerprint of his was also found at the scene, but his lawyers have since suggested it was left when he was taken there weeks later during a prosecutor-led walk-through as part of his confession.

Gates, who is black, was later convicted by an all-white jury and sentenced to death. In 2003, after a trial to determine Gates’ intellectual competency ended in mistrial, lawyers for both sides agreed to change his sentence to life in prison without parole.

In recent years, however, serious doubts have been raised about the case against him, including police misconduct and racial discrimination regarding the systematic striking of potential black jurors at his trial. Lawyers working on his behalf unearthed seemingly compelling evidence.

DNA tests on the fabric bindings used to tie up Wright don’t contain any evidence of him having touched them.

Though there is evidence of multiple other unknown DNA sources — including much of it likely belonging to Wright herself — Gates’ skin cells are not present or are undetectable, lawyers have argued.

Earlier this year, Muscogee County Superior Court Judge John Allen ruled that the lack of DNA on the fabrics merit a new trial for Gates, who is serving his life sentence at a prison in Macon County.

Allen’s ruling set the stage for Tuesday’s hearing before Georgia’s Supreme Court.

Though it could be months before the court renders a decision, justices seemed to raise their most pressing questions for the state’s appeal of a new trial for Gates.

Lawyers for the state, not surprisingly, are appealing the ruling, contending that the absence of Gates’ DNA doesn’t exonerate him. They cite other evidence, including his videotaped confession and his fingerprint in Wright’s apartment.

Mention was made at one point during oral arguments Tuesday by Channell Singh, representing state prosecutors, that between three to five identifiable DNA sources were detected on the fabrics.

The state contends that it is possible due to degradation over time that evidence Gates may have left on the bindings might not be detectable.

Some of the justices in various lines of questioning on Tuesday raised the point that, knowing about the apparent lack of Gates’ DNA on items so closely linked to the killing, might that have been extremely important for jurors to have known?

“I think the jury, if this information had been available ... it would not have reasonably led to a different verdict in this case,” Singh said.

The state also contends that Gates should have sought testing on the items in question years ago, that such tests were available as early as 2005.

Singh was asked by one of the justices, “And where was Mr. Gates in 2005?”

“Mr. Gates in 2005 was in Macon State Prison,” she said.

“And so he’s expected in a prison cell to keep up with the latest developments in the state of the art in DNA technology?” the justice replied.

Singh said that Gates’ attorneys’ knew about the fabrics, the robe belt and the necktie, as early as 2002 and should have sought testing as soon as it became available.

Tests that would later reveal the absence of Gates’ DNA were first requested in 2015.

One of Gates’ lawyers, Patrick Mulvaney, of the Southern Center for Human Rights, took the podium next and began his argument, saying, “It was not an abuse of discretion for the superior court (of Muscogee County) to grant a new trial, where new DNA evidence showed that Mr. Gates did not commit the crime for which he was convicted.”

Mulvaney cited the earlier testimony of a DNA scientist that “because of the way in which the crime occurred, the perpetrator’s DNA would be present on the bathrobe belt and necktie that were used to bind the decedent” and that Gates’ DNA “is not present on either one of those items.”

He went on to note, when asked about whether the killer might have worn gloves, that the state tried Gates under the assumption that Gates did not wear any. That, according to prosecutors, Gates had left a fingerprint that his lawyers now contend was left when he was taken to the crime scene weeks after the killing, after investigators had found no fingerprints matching his.

Mulvaney stressed the central importance of the bindings on Wright’s body and what the DNA expert said about their use by the killer.

“The pressure and friction required for the perpetrator to bind these ties the way they were bound is exactly the type of thing that would transfer a lot of DNA,” Mulvaney said.

Information from Ledger-Enquirer archives was used in this report.

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