Johnny Lee Gates
Years Lost: 43
Muscogee County, GA | November 30, 1976
On November 30, 1976, Columbus police were called to the scene of a young white woman found murdered in her apartment. The hands of the 19-year-old wife of a Fort Benning soldier were forcefully tied behind her body, her mouth was gagged, and she had been sexually assaulted and shot. A neighbor reported seeing a white man racing down the stairs and quickly leaving the building. The next day, a young white man from a prominent family was discovered fondling the victim's body in the funeral home. Police later testified under oath that they contacted the man, who then confessed to murdering the young woman, providing facts about the case that only the true perpetrator could have known. But, at the prosecutor’s urging, a grand jury did not indict and the white man went free.
The case appeared to have gone cold when, months later, two men arrested on serious criminal charges tried to win favor from the police by conveying that they had information about the unsolved murder that had stumped the department for months. One incentivized informant told police that Johnny Lee Gates – a young Black man with a sixth grade education – killed the white woman and 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 confessed under coercive police pressure and threats of the death penalty. The resulting inaccurate confession, which was typed by police and never read aloud to Johnny, who could not read, was later described by a judge as being inconsistent with the crime scene evidence and just “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 securing a written confession from Johnny, Columbus police decided to do something they’d never before done in a homicide investigation: they transported Johnny to the crime scene and escorted him through the victim’s apartment while having him repeat his confession on videotape. Despite having thoroughly searched the crime scene two months earlier and locating no fingerprints of value, and despite securing a written confession before taking Gates to the crime scene, police waited until immediately after they escorted Gates through the apartment to dust a specific area of the apartment (a heater) for prints.
Detectives directed the fingerprint technician directly to the heater and told him to lift the prints, which, according to the technician, were in remarkably pristine condition for prints that would have been two months old. The technician subsequently sent the heater cover off for chemical testing to determine if a foreign substance was present on the prints. For reasons unknown, the lab decided not to conduct the testing requested by the technician, and the heater cover was destroyed. The State later introduced those fingerprints at trial as evidence that Johnny had committed the crime months prior to the walkthrough.
Within an hour of escorting Johnny through the apartment complex for the videotaped confession, police had a resident of that complex come to the police station to participate in an identification procedure. Two months prior, the resident had informed police that a Black man who appeared dressed as a gas company employee had knocked on his apartment door about two hours prior to the crime. Despite having originally described the Black man standing between 5’9 and 5’10 and weighing around 170 pounds-and identifying similar looking people in photographs that later disappeared- two months later at the line-up involving Johnny Gates, the resident identified Johnny—who stood 5’5 and weighed about 130 pounds.
The strange fingerprint, the resident’s identification, and Johnny’s false confessions formed the basis of an all-white Muscogee County jury's conviction and subsequent 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 white man fondling the victim’s body, or that police found a large smear of Type B blood near the victim at the scene of the crime, even though both the victim and Gates had Type O blood. They also never heard that the semen on the victim’s robe was Type B, or the reasons the eyewitness identification was flawed, or the full facts and circumstances surrounding the unusual fingerprints or Johnny’s confessions. Additionally, the prosecuting attorneys in Gates' 1977 trial intentionally and systematically struck all qualified prospective Black jurors, ensuring that his capital case would be heard by an all-white jury—a systemic practice that they repeated in many death penalty trials of Black defendants in Columbus from 1975-1979.
The State destroyed the vast majority of evidence in Mr. Gates's case—including the Type B blood and semen evidence—less than two years after trial, before the direct appeal of his conviction and death sentence was even complete. Johnny spent 26 years on Georgia’s death row fighting to prove his innocence. Following protracted intellectual disability litigation in the wake of the US Supreme Court Case Atkins v. Virginia led by pro bono attorneys Ron Tabak, George Kendall, and Gary Parker, Johnny was re-sentenced to Life in Prison Without Parole in 2003. Still, Johnny did not give up. Despite the many challenges he faced, he kept fighting to prove his innocence and secure his freedom. Eventually, Johnny contacted Georgia Innocence Project (GIP).
In 2015, while GIP was investigating the case, two GIP interns located physical evidence in the District Attorney’s files - a tie and a belt used by the perpetrator to forcefully bind the victim. The State had long represented that the items were destroyed in 1979, years before DNA testing could have been conducted. GIP took on Johnny’s case and was able to secure DNA testing on the items. After the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) reported that initial DNA test results were inconclusive due the condition of the DNA and apparent number of contributors, GIP worked with DNA scientist Dr. Greg Hampikian at the DNA laboratory at Boise State University's Forensic DNA Analysis, which, utilizing a Department of Justice grant, reviewed the initial DNA analysis and then facilitated additional testing and analysis through Cybergenetics’ TrueAllele probabilistic genotyping technology. The exculpatory DNA test results, which indicated Mr. Gates was not the culprit, were presented by Dr. Mark Perlin of Cybergenetics at Johnny’s May 2018 evidentiary hearing on his Extraordinary Motion for New Trial.
At the same hearing, GIP’s co-counsel at the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR) argued that, due to the deliberate actions of Johnny’s prosecuting attorneys, Johnny was one of several Black defendants sentenced to death in Muscogee County in the late 1970’s by intentionally all-white juries. SCHR presented extensive evidence of profound and systematic race discrimination by the DA’s office, and especially by prosecutors Doug Pullen and Bill Smith. A statistician testified that the odds of the all-white juries in those death trials not being selected specifically for their race was about the same as the odds of winning the Powerball lottery three times in a row, using the exact same numbers each time.
January 10, 2019
Muscogee County Superior Court Judge John Allen ordered a new trial for Johnny Gates based on new exculpatory DNA evidence. The Court also found profound and undeniable race discrimination by the DA’s office in its selection of all white juries in death penalty trials in 1970’s. Read the decision here.
Despite the momentous and long fought victory, Johnny did not see justice, however. He remained behind bars as the Muscogee County District Attorney failed to demonstrate accountability for the many miscarriages of justice in Johnny’s case. Instead, the DA appealed Judge Allen’s tightly reasoned decision up to the Georgia Supreme Court.
During the long fourteen months of the State’s appeal, while Johnny was still imprisoned, his closest remaining relatives - his two beloved sisters - passed away. Johnny was not allowed to attend either of their funerals.
March 13, 2020
The same day Georgia shut down due to the COVID-19 global pandemic, the Georgia Supreme Court issued a 64-page decision affirming Judge Allen’s order granting a new trial for Johnny Gates based upon the exculpatory DNA evidence. The Court also acknowledged that the record in Johnny’s case “support’s the trial court’s very troubling findings regarding the selection of jurors in Gates’ 1977 trial and the other capital murder trials held in the Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit between 1975 and 1979.” Read the decision here.
Free at Last | May 15, 2020
Still, the Muscogee County District Attorney’s Office refused to dismiss the original charges against Johnny Gates, despite a case characterized by unreliable evidence and misconduct, despite repeated court decisions finding in Johnny’s favor, and even as COVID-19 now ravaged Georgia prisons and jails. 64-year-old Johnny Gates could plead to lesser charges or go to trial all over again, the DA maintained.
On May 15, 2020, after more than 43 years in prison (over half of them on death row) tirelessly fighting for justice and dignity, Johnny Gates finally walked out of the Muscogee County Jail a free man, with no probation or parole and having unfalteringly maintained his innocence through an Alford agreement. While Johnny, like everyone freed from wrongful conviction, has a long road to recovery, he now lives in a place of his own, and he recently voted in his first election since President Carter was in office.
Flawed Eyewitness ID
Southern Center for Human Rights