JOHNNY LEE GATES
Co-counsel: Southern Center for Human Rights
Muscogee County, Georgia
Muscogee County, GA | November 30, 1976
On November 30, 1976, Katharina Wright’s husband found her murdered in their apartment. Soon thereafter, a white man was seen fondling Katharina’s body in the mortuary. The man confessed to murdering the victim 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, months later, a man arrested on criminal charges tried to win favor from the police department by conveying that he had information about the unsolved murder that had stumped the department for months. The incentivized informant told police that Johnny Lee Gates – a young black man with an intellectual disability – had raped, shot and killed Katharina Wright, then threw the gun into a creek. By the time police realized their informant had lied and the gun in the creek was not the murder weapon, Johnny had already given a false confession. The resulting inaccurate confession was later described by a judge as “hard to believe."
The highest rates of false confessions occur among the intellectually disabled, juveniles, and the mentally ill. These individuals are often 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. Astonishingly more than 1 out of 4 people wrongfully convicted but later exonerated by DNA evidence made a false confession or incriminating statement.
After Columbus police secured a written confession from Johnny, they escorted him to the crime scene and had him walk through the crime. Then they took him back to the crime scene again, and this time had him repeat his confession on videotape. Despite having thoroughly searched the crime scene two months earlier and locating no fingerprints, police re-dusted a specific area of the apartment for prints immediately after police took Johnny there, this time locating prints on an item Johnny likely had just touched. Unbelievably, the state introduced those fingerprints at trial as evidence that Johnny had committed the crime.
That fingerprint evidence, a questionable and potentially tainted eyewitness identification, and Johnny’s confessions, formed the basis of the jury's conviction and death sentence, handed down after an alarmingly short trial where the defense attorney did not call a single witness. The jury never heard about the first confession of the man fondling the victim’s body, or that police found a large smear of Type B blood near the victim even though the victim and Gates were Type O. They never heard that the semen on the victim’s robe was Type B, that police walked Gates through the crime scene more than once, or the reason the eyewitness identification was flawed. Additionally, prosecuting attorneys Douglas Pullen and William Smith struck all qualified black jurors in Gates’ trial, ensuring that his case would be heard by an all-white jury - a systematic practice that they repeated in several death penalty trials of black defendants in the late 1970’s.
The State destroyed the vast majority of evidence in Mr. Gates' case less than two years after trial. But in 2015, GIP interns located ties used to bind the victim those ties were DNA tested and determined to be exculpatory.
Johnny Lee Gates never received his constitutional right to a fair trial, and he has been in prison for 41 years for a crime he did not commit. GIP and SCHR have asked a Muscogee County Superior Court judge to find that Johnny was wrongfully convicted, and to grant him a new trial.
Update: January 10, 2019
On January 10, 2019 the Muscogee County Superior Court ordered a new trial for Johnny Lee Gates. Read the decision below: