He’s been a convicted killer for 40 years. Now, Columbus court will decide if racism helped put him in prison
Forty-two years after he was convicted in a trial that since has raised allegations of racial discrimination and police misconduct, Johnny Lee Gates still waits to have his fate decided by the Georgia Supreme Court, which will hear arguments Tuesday in the 1970s Columbus murder case.
Gates was convicted and sentenced to death in the Nov. 30, 1976, rape and murder of Katharina Wright, 19, found bound and shot in the head in the Broadway apartment she shared with her husband, a Fort Benning soldier the German woman had just married.
The court will decide whether Gates is entitled to a new trial because DNA evidence from bindings used to restrain Wright does not match Gates.
The case is on appeal from Muscogee Superior Court, where Judge John Allen decided Jan. 10 that Gates should get a new trial based on DNA evidence from the crime scene.
That evidence was thought to have been lost for decades, as authorities assumed it had been discarded after Gates’ trial. But two interns working for the Georgia Innocence Project found it in 2015 while digging through files in the district attorney’s office.
They found an envelope containing Wright’s velour bathrobe belt and her husband’s black military ties that were used to bind her as she was raped and shot in the head at what in 1976 were the Fountain Court Apartments, which since have been demolished.
Gates’ DNA was not on the belt or the ties, though presumably he would have had to grip them tight to tie the knots, leaving some of his skin cells.
Allen in his January decision wrote that most of the forensic evidence was destroyed on May 2, 1979, including semen samples from the victim’s vagina and cervix, the bathrobe she wore, apparent “Caucasian” hairs, and blood samples revealed to be Type B. Both Gates and Wright were Type O.
Wright’s murder remained a mystery until January 1977 when Gates, then 21, was arrested with two other men while trying to rob a store. A tipster told police he had loaned Gates a .32-caliber handgun that Gates used to shoot Wright in the head.
When police later found the gun, ballistics tests proved it was not the murder weapon.
But the prosecution didn’t need that evidence for Gates’ trial, because Gates confessed on videotape at the crime scene.
In an account defense attorneys claim police fed to him, Gates said he went to Wright’s home disguised as a gas company worker and was allowed in when Wright told him she had called the utility about a faulty heater.
She gave him a can of oil and showed him the heater, on which he pretended to work before pulling a gun and telling her he was robbing her. She told him she had no money, but could offer him sex, which he claimed was consensual.
He also claimed he found a few hundred dollars while searching the apartment, and then he tied Wright up and started to leave when she said she could identify him, so he shot her.
Besides the confession, the state presented evidence Gates’ fingerprints were found on Wright’s heater, after his arrest in 1977. The defense now claims Gates left his prints there during his videotaped confession.
Facing an all-white jury, Gates was tried, convicted and sentenced to death in three days.
Jurors did not hear from a witness who reported seeing a white man running from Wright’s apartment, nor did they hear evidence a man caught fondling Wright’s body at the morgue also confessed to the homicide.
On Oct. 24, 1979, the Georgia Supreme Court upheld Gates’ conviction and sentence, but doubts about his intellectual competency arose after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the mentally disabled could not be executed. An appeals court decided in 1992 that Gates was entitled to a trial to determine whether he had an intellectual disability.
That trial was not held until 2003, and ended in a mistrial after seven days of testimony. The defense and prosecution agreed then to change Gates’ sentence from death to life in prison.
The Georgia Innocence Project joined in Gates’ defense in 2015, later joined by the Southern Center for Human Rights. Both will represent him Tuesday in Atlanta.
Gates’ appeal in 2018 was subsumed by a racially charged issue that has affected other murder trials.
In his decision granting Gates a new trial, Judge Allen declared that prosecutors here in the 1970s regularly struck black jurors in death-penalty cases involving black defendants to ensure they got an all-white jury, and Gates’ case was no different.
“The prosecutors clearly engaged in systematic exclusion of blacks during jury selection in this case,” Allen wrote. “They identified the black prospective jurors by race in their jury selection notes, singled them out for preemptory strikes, and struck them to try Gates before an all-white jury.”
He added: “The same prosecutors engaged in the same acts of discrimination in all death penalty trials of black males in the Chattahoochee Circuit for the years 1975-1979.”
But Allen didn’t decide Gates’ case based on that issue. He said the defense brought that up too late, as under court standards for new trial arguments, any issue the defense already knew or should have known about, and failed to argue earlier, can’t be raised at the last minute.
Gates’ defense attorneys failed to exercise “due diligence” in investigating the jury selection earlier in his appeals, Allen said.
Still, jury discrimination remains an issue because the defense filed a “cross-appeal” to the state Supreme Court in which attorneys are expected to argue that if the court reverses Allen’s decision on the DNA evidence, then Gates still deserves a new trial based on discrimination in jury selection, and the court should reverse Allen’s “due diligence” ruling on that, too.
Because of its place among other controversial Columbus death penalty cases from the 1970s, Gates’ appeal may draw national attention Tuesday.
His is the second case on the court’s docket. Because each side gets just 20 minutes to argue before the justices, Gates’ appeal likely will come up about 10:40 a.m.
Editor’s note: Information about DNA evidence has been clarified.