Case Update

Court Orders New Trial for Johnny Lee Gates

I am thrilled to report that a Muscogee County Court recently ordered that our client Johnny Lee Gates is entitled to a new trial! Mr. Gates is a black man who was convicted by an intentionally all-white jury of the 1976 rape, robbery and murder of a white woman in Columbus, Georgia. He  has fought to prove his innocence for the entire 42 years he’s been in prison (26 of those on death row).

In what the Atlanta Journal-Constitution describes as a “searing decision,” Columbus Judge John Allen makes extensive factual findings about the “undeniable,” “systematic,” and “pervasive” race discrimination that characterized Mr. Gates’ trial and several other similar trials from the time period. The Court shows in example after example evidence of the clear intent of prosecuting attorneys to all strike eligible black jurors to ensure that all-white juries would decide the fate of Mr. Gates and several other black defendants facing the death penalty in late the 1970’s.

The Court also held that that newly obtained exculpatory DNA results, obtained from the ties used to bind the victim, indicate Mr. Gates did not commit the crime and entitle him to a new trial. Thought to have been long destroyed, Georgia Innocence Project interns found those ties the DA’s office in 2015. Judge Allen considered this new, exculpatory DNA evidence in the context of other “material and exculpatory evidence” that the State destroyed very shortly after Mr. Gates’ trial (and never presented to his jury).

The decision follows a two-day hearing in Muscogee County on Mr. Gates’s Extraordinary Motion for New Trial, litigated by GIP and our co-counsel at the Southern Center for Human Rights.

Despite these clear findings indicating that Johnny Lee Gates never received a fair trial due to systematic race discrimination AND that he did not commit the crime, Muscogee County District Attorney Julia Slater recently told a local newspaper that she would appeal the decision to the Georgia Supreme Court. If she does appeal, that process could take years. GIP and SCHR intend to fight alongside Mr. Gates every step of the way. There undoubtedly will be updates.

For now, we are incredibly grateful for Judge Allen’s decision, which validates what Johnny Lee Gates has been saying for decades, and bring him one major step closer to justice.

Click here to see Judge Allen’s decision. We’ve also provided additional background on Mr. Gates’ case below.

Background on Mr. Gates’ case:

Mr. Gates, a black man, has been in prison for 42 years for the 1976 rape, robbery and murder of a young white woman in Columbus, Georgia. He was convicted and sentenced to death in 1977 by an intentionally all-white jury, after they heard just one day of evidence. But there was significant evidence that the jury never heard.  For example,

  • The jury did not know that officers located Type B blood at the scene near the victim, but that Gates and the victim were Type O.  
  • The jury never heard the supervising detective testify that police escorted Gates through the crime scene on more than one occasion. Instead, the jury only heard the prosecuting attorney argue that police never walked Gates through the crime scene, and thus Gates’ familiarity with the scene must mean he committed the crime.
  • The jury also did not hear that before Gates became a suspect, a white man found fondling the victim’s body in the mortuary subsequently confessed to the police that he murdered the victim. Nor did the jury hear that two police detectives had testified under oath that the white man’s confession included details that were previously unknown to the police and that closely matched the physical evidence from the crime scene.

Mr. Gates spent his first 26 years in prison on death row. In 2003, he was re-sentenced to life without parole following an intellectual disability hearing, initiated by his attorneys George Kendall, Ron Tabak and Gary Parker. Mr. Gates has always maintained his innocence.

The State destroyed the vast majority of the evidence in the case in 1979, less than two years after Gates’ trial and before completion of his direct appeal. The destroyed evidence included the rape kit, Caucasian hairs from the victim’s body, the semen stained robe that the victim was wearing when found, and the “material and exculpatory” Type B blood found at the crime scene near the victim.  

Notably, the State also documented that in 1979 they destroyed the the ties used to bind the victim. In 2015, GIP interns found those ties in the DA’s office. GIP then obtained court-ordered post-conviction DNA testing of the bindings. Those results initially could not be interpreted by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation due to insufficient technology, so GIP worked through a U.S. Department of Justice grant to obtain support and resources for advanced analysis, which ultimately revealed the exculpatory DNA results.

In 2017, SCHR joined the litigation as co-counsel. SCHR recently had won a major U.S. Supreme Court case, Foster v. Chatman, 136 S.Ct. 1737 (2016), wherein the high court found that the jury selection notes of two prosecutors revealed purposeful race discrimination in their use of peremptory strikes during jury selection in the death penalty trial of a black defendant. One of those prosecutors was the very same prosecutor who helped secure the all-white jury, conviction and death sentence in Mr. Gates’ trial.

GIP is very grateful to everyone who helped Mr. Gates achieve such an important step in his quest for justice. GIP is particularly indebted to outstanding GIP intern Meagan Hurley, and our SCHR co-counsel Patrick Mulvaney and Katie Moss (thank you also Mark Loudon-Brown and Mary Sinclair). Aimee Maxwell and Christina Cribbs, formerly with GIP, believed in Mr. Gates’ innocence, inspired GIP interns Bryan Reines and Catherine O’Neil to search one more time for any physical evidence (they found the ties), and, along with help from William McClintock and Pat Brumbaugh from King and Spalding, secured the DNA testing of the bindings. Thanks also to everyone else along the way who provided suggestions and support, and who took the time to speak with us. You know who you are, and we are deeply grateful.

There will be more updates to come.

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