Georgia man freed after 43 years for crime he denies committing

A motion filed on behalf of Johnny Lee Gates (inset) contends that potential jurors in his 1977 murder trial in Columbus were struck because they were black. Prosecutors’ notes from that jury selection show that all four names with an “N” beside them were struck. A “W” beside other names denotes a white potential juror. The numbers at left follow a 1-5 scale with 1 least desirable and 5 most favored by prosecutors. (Muscogee County District Attorney’s Office)

Courts found blatant racism was key factor in Johnny Lee Gates’ conviction

After 43 years in prison — more than 25 years of that on death row — Johnny Lee Gates walked out of custody on Friday a free man.

Gates was convicted during a 1977 trial of the rape, armed robbery and murder of a 19-year-old German immigrant who'd moved to Columbus 12 days earlier to be with her husband, a soldier at Fort Benning. But Gates' lawyers later showed that prosecutors used blatant race discrimination during jury selection and persuaded the Georgia Supreme Court to grant Gates a new trial based on newly discovered DNA evidence.

“I’ve fought for 43 years for this day,” Gates said. “I always had faith it would come, even when others weren’t sure. I am an innocent man. I did not commit this crime. What happened to me is something that should never happen to any person. But I am not bitter. I thank God that I am here, and I am happy to be free.”

After 43 years in prison, more than 25 of that on Georgia's death row, Johnny Lee Gates walked out of custody on Friday, May 15, 2020, a free man. Courts found that blatant racism on the part of prosecutors was responsible for Gates' conviction in 1977 on charges of rape, armed robbery and murder. (PHOTO CREDIT: Katie Moss of the Southern Center for Human Rights in Columbus)

On Friday, Gates entered what’s called an “Alford plea” to voluntary manslaughter and armed robbery — a plea in which Gates did not admit to committing the crimes but conceded prosecutors had enough evidence to convict him.

Gates was sentenced to 40 years for the two crimes. But since he had already spent all that time, plus an additional three years, behind bars, he received credit for time served.

Gates confessed to police he’d committed the crimes, but his lawyers contended he had been coerced. At trial, prosecutors said Gates tightly bound murder victim Katharina Wright with a necktie and a belt from a bathrobe before killing her.

In 2015, representatives from the Georgia Innocence Project found those two pieces of evidence in the Muscogee County district attorney’s office, and Senior Judge John Allen allowed the items to be tested for DNA. A series of tests found the presence of DNA from as many as five individuals on the tie and belt — but not from Gates.

This led Allen to grant Gates a new trial, a decision that was later upheld by the Georgia Supreme Court. In its ruling on March 13, the state high court said "the newly discovered DNA evidence now available to Gates casts significant doubt on the state's theory that Gates was the perpetrator."

In his new trial order, Allen also condemned prosecutors’ strikes of prospective black jurors during jury selection, finding “undeniable” and “overwhelming” evidence of race discrimination.

Prosecutors' notes from the 1977 murder trial of Johnny Lee Gates in Columbus, Ga. show that all four black prospective jurors (marked with an N in the notes) were struck. Each name also has a 1 to the left of it, indicating that prosecutors found them least favorable. Two other white prospective jurors who were also struck are included here, with a note on one (Campbell, No. 15) saying that he was opposed but would grant the death penalty.

Credit: Muscogee County District Attorney’s Office

Credit: Muscogee County District Attorney’s Office

Gates’ new legal team from the Georgia Innocence Project and the Southern Center for Human Rights found that Columbus prosecutors systematically excluded prospective black jurors in seven death penalty cases, including Gates’, in the 1970s.

In handwritten notes, Columbus prosecutors described prospective black jurors as “slow,” “ignorant,” “con artist” and “fat.” They also jotted a “B” or an “N” next to black people’s names on jury lists and routinely ranked them as the least desirable jurors.

Gates was initially sentenced to death during his three-day trial in 1977. He was re-sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole in 2003.

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