JOHNNY LEE GATES
Thirty-nine years after Johnny Lee Gates was convicted of the murder and rape of a young woman in Georgia, two interns at the Georgia Innocence Project discovered evidence that could help prove his innocence.
Government agencies involved in the case had said for nearly four decades that all the evidence from the investigation had been destroyed. Yet, for all that time, the ties used to bind the victim during her assault apparently were sitting untouched in the district attorney’s file.
The interns, Catherine O’Neill and Bryan Reines, were only looking for documentation to support the DA’s claim that the evidence had been destroyed. The ties were in an unmarked envelope stored among boxes and boxes of court documents and lab reports. Soon after Catherine and Bryan discovered the evidence, the Georgia Innocence Project appeared in court on Gate’s behalf.
The story begins on November 30, 1976, when the victim’s husband found her murdered in their apartment. Days later, a man was caught fondling the victim’s body in the mortuary. The man confessed to the victim’s murder and appeared to know facts about the case that only the perpetrator could have known. But, at the prosecutor’s urging, a grand jury did not indict.
The case appeared to have gone cold when, the following year, an informant named James Albert Taylor claimed that his acquaintance Johnny Lee Gates had confessed to raping and murdering the victim. Taylor said that Johnny Lee had borrowed Taylor’s gun, used it in the murder and thrown it into a lake.
At the time the police began investigating Johnny Lee Gates in connection with the murder, Johnny Lee was 21 years old and recently had been arrested for an attempted robbery. The police interrogated Johnny Lee first about the robbery, then the murder. In the course of this interrogation, a detective threatened Johnny Lee, yelled racial slurs at him for hours and described in detail, again and again, what he believed Johnny Lee had done to the victim.
Johnny Lee Gates had an IQ of 65 and did not finish middle school. Undereducated people with low IQ scores are vulnerable to the pressures of coercive police interrogation techniques because they are less likely to understand the charges against them and the consequences of confessing. As noted by the Innocence Project, an astonishing more than 1 out of 4 people wrongfully convicted but later exonerated by DNA evidence made a false confession or incriminating statement.
It is impossible to know exactly how many innocent people are currently incarcerated based on convictions secured through false confessions. We do know, however, that one of these people appears to be Johnny Lee Gates.
The police related the story of the crime multiple times before Johnny Lee gave them a confession. When he finally did, he described a murder that did not match the evidence found at the crime scene. By the time the police had extracted Johnny Lee’s confession, they also had managed to recover the gun their informant described. Testing of the gun demonstrated that it could not have been the weapon used in the crime’s commission. This revelation was still not enough, however, to save Johnny Lee Gates from being charged with rape and murder.
At trial, the prosecution’s argument was based on weak evidence, conflicting eyewitness testimony, and Johnny Lee Gates’ apparently coerced confession. In addition, only after walking Johnny Lee throughout the crime scene, where he confessed a second time, did police investigators locate Johnny Lee’s handprint on a hot water heater. This handprint was introduced at trial as proof that Johnny Lee committed murder.
At the end of a very short trial, Johnny Lee Gates, who is black, was convicted and sentenced to death by an all-white jury, which deliberated for only 45 minutes before returning a verdict.
By now, GIP has facilitated DNA testing of the ties found by the 2015 summer interns. Sadly, the test results are not conclusive. The GBI crime lab found a mixed sample of DNA on the ties: there are at least three contributors to the sample. Mixed samples are difficult to analyze, especially without reference samples from the two of three people who we know likely would have touched the bathrobe ties: the deceased victim and her husband.
Today, the GIP is gathering the raw data from the testing and working to find an expert able to pull apart these profiles and arrive at a conclusive result. Though we have encountered an obstacle, we are still moving forward on Johnny LeeGates’ case, and working hard to prove his innocence and win back his freedom.
To learn more about how you can help us free Johnny Lee Gates and the other imprisoned innocent, go here.
Convicted of: Murder, Rape and Armed Robbery
Sentence: Life without parole
Years served: 39 and counting
Attorneys: GIP and Volunteer Attorney Christina Cribbs
Ray White’s life was turned upside down over 20 years ago when he became the prime suspect in a violent crime he knew nothing about.
The victim of the crime received harassing phone calls for two weeks leading up to the attack. The caller threatened, on the day of the attack, that he would see the victim soon. He waited until she took out the trash. As she walked up her back steps to go inside, he shoved her from behind, pushing her over the threshold and into her house. They fell to the floor, and as she scrambled to get away, the attacker tried to pull her clothes off and rape her. She managed escape, run to the kitchen, grab a gun, and shoot at the attacker, who fled.
At the hospital, the victim helped the police to create a composite sketch of the assailant. The sketch depicted a white male with no facial hair. The police showed the composite to the victim’s boyfriend, who said that if the police put a mustache on him, the man in the sketch would look like a man he knew named Ray White. So the police added a mustache.
The victim’s boyfriend knew Ray from the gym, where he had also recently introduced Ray to the victim. Though the victim did not initially identify Ray as her attacker, her boyfriend theorized that since the harassing calls began after she met Ray, Ray must have made the calls and committed the attack.
Police presented Ray to the victim twice in one day: first in a photo array, and then in a lineup conducted in sequential pairs. In the lineup, the police paired Ray with a Hispanic man whose appearance differed dramatically from the victim’s description. The victim identified Ray White both times.
However, Ray had an ironclad alibi. He was at work at the time of the attack, and many of his coworkers would later testify that they saw him there at the time in question. Not only that, but Ray worked in a warehouse where he used a scanner that tracked his scanning activities. The scanner showed he was working during the window of time in which the crime occurred.
Despite the strength of his alibi and the flaws in the eyewitness identification, a jury convicted Ray White of Kidnapping with Bodily Injury and Aggravated Assault and Burglary.
At 33, Ray had just found a new level of stability in his life, and was rebuilding his relationship with his wife. All that ended when the judge pronounced the sentence: life in prison plus two 20 year concurrent sentences.
20 years later, the Georgia Innocence Project is working to prove Ray White’s innocence. We have a hearing scheduled for August 2016, at which we will request that new DNA testing be conducted on the evidence in Ray’s case. We hope that the results of this testing will reveal the real perpetrator, and exonerate Ray White. In the meantime, we continue to work on Ray’s case, and to pursue all avenues through which we might secure his freedom. To learn more about how you can help us free Ray White and the other imprisoned innocent, go here.
Convicted of: Aggravated Assault, Kidnapping with Bodily Injury and Burglary
Sentence: Life concurrent with two 20 year sentences
Years Served: 20 and counting
Current Attorneys: GIP + Recent GIP Intern Veselin Siminov +Volunteer Attorney Aimee Maxwell
On January 11, 2000, 19-year-old Joey Watkins of Rome, GA spent the afternoon fishing with his uncle, just over the Alabama state line. He got back home at 6:45 p.m., took a shower, and headed out to visit his girlfriend, Aislinn Hogue. On his way to Aislinn’s house, Joey passed a car wreck on the side of Highway 27, and noticed that the damaged truck looked like that of his former high school classmate, 21-year-old Isaac Dawkins. Joey arrived at Aislinn’s house around 8 p.m. and drove home again at around 10 p.m., passing the wreck again on his way.
Shortly after 9 p.m., the Rome Police Department learned that what first looked like a single-car traffic accident was something far more sinister. The police had spent over an hour and a half processing what they thought was a run-of-the-mill accident before they realized Isaac Dawkins had a bullet in his brain.
Detective Moser of the Rome Police Department went to the hospital that same night. When he asked Isaac’s friends and family who might have done this, they initially were hard-pressed for suspects. Isaac was a clean-cut, God-fearing young man who seemed to have no enemies. Could it have been Isaac’s sister’s boyfriend? Maybe the shooter made a mistake? Maybe Joey Watkins? In the past, Joey had fought with Isaac over Joey’s ex-girlfriend, Brianne Scarber, whom Isaac briefly dated. Joey was hot-tempered, a friend of Isaac’s told Detective Moser.
Following a thorough investigation into Joey Watkins as a suspect, the Rome Police Department shifted its focus away from Joey as it seemed increasingly likely that he did not in fact commit the crime. But, unfortunately for Joey, the Rome PD investigation also failed to yield any more likely suspects, or even to reveal a plausible explanation for the events surrounding Isaac’s death.
Frustrated with the Rome PD’s lack of progress with the case, Isaac Dawkins’ family successfully petitioned to have their friend Stanley Sutton, a sergeant with the Floyd County Police, assigned full-time to the case. As of November 2000, Sgt. Sutton notified the Georgia Bureau of Investigation that they were still investigating Watkins despite that “no evidence” had been obtained on which to base an arrest. Four days later, Joey was arrested and incarcerated, never to be released again.
At a separate trial, Joey’s co-defendant, who the state argued was the one who shot Isaac Dawkins, was acquitted by a jury that deliberated for less than an hour.
Convicted of: Murder, Possession of Firearm During Crime and Stalking
Sentence: Life plus 5 years plus 12 months
Years Served: 15 and counting
Co-Defendant: Alleged shooter - Acquitted
Current Attorneys: GIP and Volunteer Attorney Ben Goldberg
In 2001, a woman walked in on a man who was in the process of burglarizing her Savannah, Georgia home. The man sexually assaulted the woman at knifepoint, then fled with some of her belongings. Before the woman was assaulted, she noticed that the man was wearing blue and white gloves.
Sandeep “Sonny” Bharadia was in Stone Mountain 255 miles away from Savannah working on a friend’s car on the day the victim was attacked. A witness supports his alibi. Days after the assault, Sonny called the police to report that Sterling Flint, an acquaintance of Sonny’s, had stolen Sonny’s car. When the police investigated Flint for stealing the car, they found the sexual assault victim’s stolen items along with a pair of blue and white gloves in a bag in Flint’s girlfriend’s house. When the sexual assault victim was shown a photo lineup, she identified Sterling Flint as her attacker.
Now implicated in a sexual assault, Sterling Flint claimed that the stolen items found in his possession actually belonged to Sonny Bharadia. So police then gave the victim a second photo lineup and, this time, she identified Sonny Bharadia as her attacker.
Flint pled guilty to theft by receiving stolen property and, in exchange for not being prosecuted for a sex crime, Flint testified against Sonny Bharadia. Flint’s testimony, along with the victim’s revised eyewitness identification, formed the backbone of the prosecution’s case against Sonny. In 2003, with no physical evidence to tie him to the crime, Sonny Bharadia was convicted of aggravated sodomy, burglary, and aggravated sexual battery. He was sentenced to life without parole plus 40 years.
Ever since he learned he was a suspect, Sonny Bharadia has broadcast his innocence. GIP listened. In 2012, DNA testing initiated by the Georgia Innocence Project revealed that the attacker’s blue and white gloves had been worn by Sterling Flint, not Sonny Bharadia. Despite proof of his innocence, Georgia courts denied Sonny’s request for a new trial, ruling that because the blue and white glove could have been tested for DNA before Sonny’s first trial, it is not new evidence and therefore Sonny is not entitled to relief.
Today, Sonny Bharadia has nearly exhausted his appeals and is close to being out of options. This case is just one example of how even compelling evidence of actual innocence is sometimes powerless to reverse a miscarriage of justice. However, the Georgia Innocence Project and Sonny’s volunteer lawyers have not given up on Sonny. We strive to find any potential avenues through which we may yet secure his release. To learn more about how you can help us free Sonny Bharadia and the other imprisoned innocent, go here.
Convicted of: Aggravated Sodomy, Burglary and Aggravated Sexual Battery
Sentence: Life without parole plus 40 years
Years served: 13 and counting
Current Attorneys: GIP and Volunteer Attorneys Holly Pearson and Jodi Dick
On June 9, 1991, single mother Teresa Fargason went to Kroger with her sixyearold daughter, Taylor. While Teresa was ordering food from the deli counter, Taylor disappeared. Teresa and the store manager frantically searched the store. But by the time Taylor reached the police station to report her daughter missing, the police already knew Taylor was dead. Her body had been found near the side of a road in Macon, Georgia.
Police initially suspected Teresa because her timeline of events was inconsistent with the coroner’s, who was not a medical doctor and was mistaken about the time of death. They assembled a 75person task force and relentlessly investigated Teresa tapping her phone, following her, placing a recording device on Taylor’s grave, and even sending Teresa a Mother’s Day card signed, “Taylor.” A year later, they arrested her for murder. The death of her young daughter and ensuing trial simply devastated Teresa.
She was only vaguely aware, during the trial, that evidence had come forward that another person had confessed to the crime. Unfortunately, the judge refused to let the jury hear this evidence and the state chose to continue prosecuting Teresa. The only physical evidence pointing to Teresa was a tire track on Taylor’s arm that was a 10% match to the tires on Teresa’s car, and a single strand of Teresa’s hair that was recovered from Taylor’s body. Based largely on this scant evidence, Teresa was convicted of her six year old daughter’s murder, and sentenced to life in prison.
GIP first heard from Teresa in 2006. We thoroughly investigated her case but could not locate any evidence that we could test to prove the killer’s identity. We kept the case open, however, trying to find some way to help. Finally, crime labs began testing clothes for “touch” or “contact” DNA skin cells that may transfer onto an item. If we could find Taylor’s clothes, then touch DNA testing might prove who killed her.
We found the clothes and, in 2015, the Georgia Innocence Project and volunteer attorneys Findling and Goldberg convinced the judge to allow DNA testing on Taylor’s clothes. The Georgia Bureau of Investigations says we should have results back within a couple of months. So, for now, we wait. In the meantime, Teresa continues to fight to learn what really happened to Taylor. And we continue to fight for her and so many other wrongfully convicted, innocenct men and women.
To learn more about how you can help Teresa Fargason and other imprisoned innocent, go here
Convicted of: Murder
Years Served: 21 years in prison, still on parole
Current Attorneys: GIP and Volunteer Attorneys Drew Findling and Marissa Goldberg