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May 10, 2019 Death Penalty News

Judge Orders New Trial for Former Georgia Death Row Prisoner Johnny Lee Gates

Callie Heller, Staff Attorney

Sixteen years ago, Johnny Lee Gates was resentenced from death to life in prison, after he was found intellectually disabled and ineligible for the death penalty. Now, the conviction for which Gates was originally sentenced to die is in question. On January 10, 2019, Muscogee County Superior Court Judge John Allen ordered a new trial for Gates, based on the exculpatory results of recent DNA tests. Gates, who is represented by attorneys at the Southern Center for Human Rights and Georgia Innocence Project, has been incarcerated for over 40 years.

The State destroyed most of the evidence two years after Gates’ 1977 trial. Since then, the State had maintained that there was no physical evidence left to test. However, in 2015, Georgia Innocence Project interns reviewing the district attorney’s files discovered two ties that had been used to bind the victim. Last year, DNA testing on those ties excluded Gates as a contributor. In ordering a new trial, Judge Allen wrote that “[t]he DNA evidence is meaningful and exculpatory because it demonstrates that Gates was not the person who bound the victim’s hands.” Judge Allen also noted the “rare” situation presented at the hearing: defense DNA expert Mark Perlin had created the testing software used, and had trained the two Georgia Bureau of Investigation scientists that the prosecution relied upon. The State scientists’ testimony ultimately supported the defense expert’s conclusions, which Judge Allen called “noteworthy.”

Judge Allen also called out the trial prosecutors for “clearly engag[ing] in systemic race discrimination during jury selection,” but found that the discrimination had been presented to the court too late to form the basis for a new trial. Gates, who is African American, was tried by an all-white jury for the rape and murder of Katharina Wright, a white woman. The prosecutors used peremptory challenges to remove the African-American members of the jury pool; their notes, turned over to defense counsel in March 2018, revealed they had identified African-American potential jurors by race. This was not an isolated incident. The State also turned over their notes for all capital trials of black males in the county between 1975 and 1979, and Judge Allen found they showed that “[t]he same prosecutors engaged in the same acts of discrimination [in all the cases] . . . and then made racially charged arguments to the all-white juries they secured.” The pattern of racial discrimination by one of Gates’ prosecutors, Doug Pullen, became national news in 2016, when the U.S. Supreme Court cited his history of striking African-American potential jurors in Foster v. Chatman. Gates’ conviction featured additional troubling factors, such as police officers walking him through the crime scene prior to obtaining his fingerprints from the scene, that also did not contribute to the order for a new trial due to timeliness issues.

The State plans to appeal the decision to the Georgia Supreme Court.