Hearing on DNA testing delayed in 1976 rape, murder


ROBIN TRIMARCHI Johnny Lee Gates leaves Superior Court following a hearing August 25, 2015, on a motion to test DNA on new evidence. Gates was convicted in August 1977 of the November 1976 rape and murder of Katharina Wright, the wife of a Fort Benning soldier. Gates was 21 at the time.
ROBIN TRIMARCHI Johnny Lee Gates leaves Superior Court following a hearing August 25, 2015, on a motion to test DNA on new evidence. Gates was convicted in August 1977 of the November 1976 rape and murder of Katharina Wright, the wife of a Fort Benning soldier. Gates was 21 at the time. Ledger-Enquirer File Photo

If Johnny Lee Gates persuades a Columbus judge to order DNA testing on evidence from the Nov. 30, 1976, rape and murder of Broadway resident Katharina Gertrude Wright, he will have not only his Georgia Innocence Project attorneys to thank, but two interns.

Gates, who was 21 at the time of the crime, 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.

Though he gave police a confession his attorneys found questionable, Gates since has maintained his innocence, and filed repeated motions seeking a new trial.

Told all physical evidence from the case had been destroyed in 1978, the Innocence Project this summer sought to confirm that, seeking some memo or other document in the case file to prove it.

That task was assigned to interns Bryan Reines and Catherine O’Neill. Reines, 21, is a senior at Emory University. O’Neill, 20, is a junior at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. They were finishing the last two weeks of a 10-week internship when they came to dig through documents stored in the district attorney’s Government Center office.

There on July 30 they were sifting through five boxes of files when Reines picked up a manila envelope and inside saw a white velour bathrobe belt and black ties — evidence documented in 1976 crime-scene photographs and in police reports stating the belt and ties were used to bind the victim.

Also visible in the envelope were pieces of cardboard. Police used cardboard to protect glass slides upon which they put samples of semen or other bodily fluids.

The interns did not touch the envelope’s contents, lest the evidence be tainted.

Now the Innocence Project believes it could have evidence proving that after 38 years in prison, Gates was convicted of a murder he did not commit. This past Aug. 18, attorneys Christina Cribbs and Aimee Maxwell filed a motion to have the evidence tested for DNA, to see if the killer’s skin cells rubbed off on the belt and ties, and whether any semen evidence yields a profile that does not match Gates.

In a hearing Tuesday before Senior Judge John Allen, Assistant District Attorney Brad Bickerstaff was granted 60 days to respond to the defense motion. Allen has 90 days from Aug. 18 to schedule another hearing. He heard no testimony.

In an interview after Tuesday’s hearing, Cribbs said Wright, a native of Germany, was the attractive 19-year-old wife of a soldier who met her while he was stationed there. Married for six months, they first lived in Arizona upon his return to the United States, and then moved to Columbus when he was assigned to Fort Benning.

They had been in Columbus just two weeks when the husband found her dead in the bedroom of their second-floor apartment at 1:24 p.m. that Tuesday, the last day of November 1976.

Her partially nude body was face-up on the floor next to a door, the white belt from her bathrobe 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 found semen on the victim’s robe, but with DNA testing unavailable in the 1970s, lab tests could only determine it came from someone with Type B blood. Both Gates and Wright were blood Type O, though Wright’s husband was Type B.

A question unlikely to be addressed at this stage of the case is what role race played in Gates’ arrest and trial in 1977. Attorneys who earlier represented him believe it was a crucial factor. Gates is black; the victim was white; and the jury was all white.

Gates was not the first suspect to confess: A white man caught fondling Wright’s body in the funeral home told police he had stalked Wright before he got into her apartment, tied her up and killed her.

Gates’ current attorneys say the white suspect’s account more closely matches the crime scene, as he told police he tied the woman to a doorknob and shot her.

Gates in his confession told police he shot her as she sat on the bed, but no blood was on the bed, and no blood trail led from the bed to the door where the body was found, his attorneys say.

The attorneys say also that though police reported finding Gates’ fingerprints on a heater in the apartment, investigators found those in January 1977 after they twice brought Gates to the crime scene. They suspect Gates touched the heater during those visits, leaving the prints later alleged to have been placed there the day of the murder.

Authorities decided the white suspect’s account didn’t match the evidence, and a prosecutor advised a grand jury not to indict him on Jan. 5, 1977.

The case remained unsolved until later that month, when Gates and two other men were arrested while trying to rob a store. 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 the gun, but ballistics showed it was not used in the homicide.

In his confession, Gates told police he posed as a gas company worker when he went to Wright’s apartment, and she invited him in, saying she’d expected someone to come work on a faulty heater. She led him to the heater and gave him a can of oil, and he worked on the heater before telling her he was going to rob her.

She told him she had no money and offered sex. After they had sex, he again demanded money, and she gave him $480. Gates said he rummaged through drawers in the apartment and washed up in the bathroom. He tied the victim up on her bed and shot her, he told police.

Gates’ defense attorneys note that neither Wright’s husband nor the gas company had any knowledge the victim had reported a faulty heater. Also they point out no other fingerprints from Gates were found, though he claimed to have gone through the apartment looking for more money.

Some evidence of the racial attitudes of the era were reflected in the recollections of attorney Ronald Tabak, who for Gates’ appeals joined the defense team in 1985.

As an example of Gates’ ineffective counsel, Tabak cited a public defender’s failure to object in 1977 when the prosecution said Gates could not have had consensual sex with Wright, because a white woman would not willingly have sex with a black man.

Tabak later wrote that he presented this in 1988 to a panel of the federal Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, and would never forget the reaction: “The members of the Eleventh Circuit panel were incredulous at my argument. One of them said the prosecutor’s argument seemed perfectly logical to him.”

In 1989, Georgia executed a mentally challenged inmate named Jerome Bowden. The Georgia General Assembly afterward passed a law prohibiting such executions.

Gates had been sentenced to death for Wright’s murder, and was known to have had an apparent learning disability growing up. His attorneys then sought to prove that Gates lacked the mental capacity to be executed.

The evidence was presented to a jury in 2003, but the proceeding ended in a mistrial when a witness revealed Gates was on death row. Jurors were not to be told that, lest it influence their decision on his intellectual ability.

Rather than pursue a retrial, the prosecution agreed Nov. 12, 2003, to change Gates’ sentence to life without parole, a penalty unavailable at the time of Gates’ 1977 trial.

Born in 1955, Gates soon will be 60 years old, having served three-quarters of his life behind bars. He’s now incarcerated in the Macon State Prison in Oglethorpe.