JOHNNY LEE GATES
Flawed Eyewitness ID
CO-COUNSEL: Southern Center for Human Rights
Muscogee County, Georgia
Muscogee County, GA | November 30, 1976
On November 30, 1976, a young woman's husband found her murdered in their apartment. Soon thereafter, a white man was seen fondling the victim's body in the funeral home. The man then confessed to murdering the young woman, and reportedly 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 the young woman, 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 throughout the crime and repeat his confession on videotape. Despite having thoroughly searched the crime scene two months earlier and locating no fingerprints matching Gates, and despite securing a written confession before taking Gates to the crime scene, police waited until immediately after they escorted Gates through the crime scene to dust a specific area of the apartment for prints. The state then introduced those fingerprints at trial as evidence that Johnny had committed the crime months prior.
That fingerprint evidence, a flawed and inconsistent eyewitness identification, and Johnny’s confessions, formed the basis of the jury's conviction and death sentence, which was 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, or the reasons the eyewitness identification was flawed. Additionally, the prosecuting attorneys in Gates' 1977 trial struck all qualified black jurors, 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 a tie and a belt used to forcefully bind the victim. Those items 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 43 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: March 13, 2020
Georgia Supreme Court Affirms Order Granting New Trial for Johnny Lee Gates.
Update: January 10, 2019
Muscogee County Superior Court Judge John Allen orders new trial for Johnny Lee Gates based on new exculpatory DNA evidence. Finds profound and undeniable race discrimination by DA’s office in selection of all white juries in death penalty trials in 1970’s and 1980’s. Read the decision below: