July 24, 2020

Former Georgia Death Row Prisoner Johnny Lee Gates Released After 43 Years in Prison

Map of Georgia with Muscogee County highlighted, where ex-death row prisoner Johnny Lee Gates entered an Alford Plea and walked out a free man.

Map of Georgia with Muscogee County highlighted, where ex-death row prisoner Johnny Lee Gates entered an Alford Plea and walked out a free man.

David Benbennick / Wikimedia Commons

 

On May 15, 2020, after 43 years in prison—26 of which were spent on death row—Johnny Lee Gates was released from prison. In 2003, Mr. Gates was found to be intellectually disabled and was resentenced to life imprisonment without parole. Then, following a grant of a new trial based on DNA evidence in 2019, Mr. Gates pleaded guilty to lesser charges of manslaughter and robbery via an Alford plea, a device allowing him to maintain his innocence while conceding that the State has enough evidence to secure a conviction. He was sentenced to 40 years and received credit for his 40-plus years of incarceration as time served and was granted his freedom.

As the Project detailed in its Spring 2019 newsletter, Muscogee County Superior Court Judge John Allen ordered a new trial for Mr. Gates in January 2019 based on the exculpatory results of recent DNA tests. In 2015, members of Mr. Gates’ defense team at the Georgia Innocence Project had discovered crime scene evidence in the district attorney’s files that had never been tested, despite the State’s prior statements that all physical evidence had been destroyed. DNA testing of the evidence—ties that had been used to bind the victim—excluded Mr. 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.” Ruling on another issue involving evidence of prosecutorial discrimination in jury selection both in Mr. Gates’ trial before an all-white jury and historically in Muscogee County, Judge Allen agreed that “evidence of systematic race discrimination during jury selection in this case is undeniable,” but found that the claim had been presented to the court too late to form the basis for a new trial.

[T]he newly discovered DNA evidence now available to Gates casts significant doubt on the State’s theory that Gates was the perpetrator.

Georgia Supreme Court

The State appealed the order to the Georgia Supreme Court, which unanimously affirmed in March 2020, clearing the way for a new trial. Though the district attorney’s office had initially announced plans to retry Mr. Gates, at a May 11 hearing, the parties informed the judge that they were working on negotiating a plea deal. Both prosecutors and Mr. Gates’ attorneys had also agreed to ask for release of Mr. Gates on his own recognizance in the meantime, with counsel for Mr. Gates pointing out the heightened risk of contracting the coronavirus for the 63-year-old Gates. However, the judge refused. A few days later, Mr. Gates entered his plea and walked out of the county jail.

In a written statement Mr. Gates issued through his attorneys following his release, he reiterated his innocence: “I’ve fought for 43 years for this day. 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.”