The 50 For 50 Freedom Run

Columbus woman runs 50 miles on her 50th Birthday to raise money for GIP

Casey Geringer, Johnny Gates, and supporters gathered in Columbus, GA to raise money for Georgia Innocence Project.

As Casey Geringer, a beloved Columbus eye doctor, approached her 50th birthday, she knew she wanted to do something big to mark the important day, but she wasn’t sure exactly what that was. One morning she was listening to one of her favorite podcasts when the topic turned to inspirational people doing hard things. Her mind immediately drifted to her friend Johnny Lee Gates

Johnny spent more than 43 years behind bars, 26 of those on death row, for a crime he did not commit. His case was rife with official misconduct, from coercing an unreliable confession to suppressing and destroying exculpatory evidence, to striking prospective Black jurors and intentionally creating an all-White jury.

Johnny Lee Gates celebrates being released from prison in 2020 with Minister Edward DuBose and GIP fellow Meagan Hurley.

He was finally released from prison in May 2020 with the help of Georgia Innocence Project and the Southern Center for Human Rights.

Johnny’s case is extraordinary, but unfortunately not unique. Studies estimate that 4-6% of people in prison are innocent. That may not sound like a lot, but in Georgia alone, that equates to more than 2,000 innocent people behind bars. 

Spreading awareness about the issues of wrongful conviction in and around the Columbus community, in particular, is especially important. Since 1989, three people have been exonerated from Muscogee County alone and the Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit, where Johnny Gates’ case originated, was once known as the “buckle of the death belt.” Despite its relatively small size, this area pursued capital punishment more aggressively than any other circuit in Georgia, routinely relying on predominantly White attorneys’ intentional selection of all-white juries to harshly condemn Black men, especially those accused of harming White victims.

Casey thought about the unimaginable hardship of Johnny’s wrongful imprisonment, the clear injustices in his case, and the fact that they had become such good friends despite all of it. She finally knew what she wanted to do for her 50th birthday. Casey decided she was going to run 50 miles in honor of Johnny Lee Gates and others like him who had been wrongfully imprisoned. Along with the run, she would also collect donations from the community to gift Georgia Innocence Project.

Johnny Lee Gates with Casey Geringer on the day of the 50 for 50 Freedom Run.

Casey first met Johnny as a patient in June 2020. 

“He told me, without hesitation, that he had just gotten out of prison for a wrongful conviction. He was so honest and kind, I immediately felt for him and his situation, and I couldn’t stop telling my friends and family about him and the injustice of his story,” said Casey. “On a return visit, he told me that he was going to be on a podcast. I gave him my phone number and told him I would love to hear it when it came out.”

Shortly after, Johnny texted Casey to let her know the episode of the podcast he was featured in had come out. After that, Casey asked Johnny if he wanted to go for a walk at a local park one day and he agreed. Their unlikely friendship bloomed from there, with Johnny wishing Casey and her family a good morning in text messages every day along with words of encouragement.

Two years later, Johnny is like a member of the family. He attends her kids’ sporting events and often joins the family for church on Sundays and breakfast afterward. 

“He has taught me a lot about what it means to live a life of true faith and to enjoy the present moment,” said Casey.

The big run took place on Saturday, May 21st. By 5:00 a.m., Casey and a group of supporters had already gathered and began to tackle the first of what would eventually become hundreds of laps around the park track. By the end of the day not only had Casey completed her 50-mile goal but an additional 300 miles was run by a number of other supporters who joined her! 

Staff members from Georgia Innocence Project as well as Johnny and Terry Talley also attended the event to cheer Casey on and educate the attendees about wrongful convictions in Georgia. 

The GIP family celebrated the end of a long, successful day by eating at a local barbecue restaurant.

In total, Casey helped raise more than $11,000 for GIP! We are blown away by Casey’s dedication and generosity, and we are so happy that other people in our community have gotten to know and love Johnny just as much as the GIP family does. 

Thank you, Casey and Johnny!

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