My favorite experience in law school was serving as an extern at the Georgia Innocence Project.
In 1977 an all-white Muscogee County jury convicted Johnny Lee Gates of the rape and murder of a 19-year-old white female. He was sentenced to death.
During a 2002 hearing related to whether or not Mr. Gates could be put to death, the Columbus Police Department testified that they had no physical evidence from the case. Benny Blankenship, formerly of the GBI crime lab, testified that there was a document indicating that four neckties and a bathrobe belt were destroyed in 1979 pursuant to GBI policy at the time.
It was later agreed to that Mr. Gates would not be put to death but instead would serve life without parole.
Interns Save the Day
At the DA's office the interns found four neckties and a bathrobe belt from the crime scene. In August of 2015, Gates filed an extraordinary motion for post-conviction DNA testing of the belt and ties and for a new trial.
You may be wondering why there was no testing done for the first trial, or why this wasn't brought up at the 2002 hearing. The easy answer is that the type of testing that could help exonerate Johnny Lee Gates wasn't developed until around 2007 or 2008. The first time Mr. Gates was in court, with the evidence, and knowing it could be DNA tested was in 2015.
In 2016, Gates filed a motion notifying the court that the GBI had conducted DNA testing and discovered that the DNA on the belt and tie was from a mixture of at least three people. The GBI's technology, however, prohibited any further testing.
TrueAllele Testing Excludes Johnny Lee Gates
In 2017, the court ordered further testing of the DNA found on the belt and the tie and ordered a comparison of that DNA and a sample from Mr. Gates. The court allowed Gates and his attorneys to analyze the samples through software called TrueAllele. Cybergenetics sells this software and conducted a test of the DNA from Gates and the DNA found on the belt. TrueAllele excluded Gates as a contributor to the DNA mixture found on the belt and tie. Gates' DNA was not on that evidence.
Following this incredible news, the attorneys for Gates filed a motion for a new trial that included claims of jury discrimination, destruction of evidence, and suppression of evidence.
All White Juries
In light of the motion, the court ordered the DA to turn over notes regarding jury selection in light of the claims of racial discrimination in jury selection. A disturbing pattern developed. Out of seven death penalty cases from the Chattahoochee Circuit in the late 70s - only one white juror. Six defendants were tried in front of all-white juries.
The District Attorney's office had placed "B" or "N" next to African-American jurors. And created tally columns reflecting twelve tallies in the "white" column and none in the "black" column.
A New Trial
Following all of this, the court ordered that Mr. Gates be given a new trial. Surprising to some, and not to others, the State Government opposed a new trial in this case despite the existence of DNA evidence that excluded Mr. Gates from the DNA found on the items used to bound the victim in this case.
The State Government Opposes a New Trial
The prosecutor's office appealed the ruling that Mr. Gates be given a new trial. The do not want a new trial and it is my belief that they do not want a new trial because they do not want to be the DA's office that prosecuted an innocent man and had him sentenced to death, then life without parole.
Just to be clear the DA's office opposes a new trial for a man who has been in prison since the 70s and has DNA evidence showing that his DNA is not on the items used to bind a woman while she was killed.
Is Johnny Lee Gates Free?
No. In fact, the District Attorney, Julia Slater, has indicated that she intends to retry Mr. Gates for the murder despite the new DNA evidence. He could be given credit for the 43 years he has been in prison and released, but, instead, Mr. Gates will presumably be held while he awaits his new trial or, hopefully, until the District Attorney decides not to proceed with the prosecution.