Georgia man jailed for 43 years freed after plea deal

Johnny Lee Gates (Georgia Department of Corrections)

A Georgia man convicted of murdering a woman in 1976 reached a plea deal and was released from jail Friday after recent DNA testing cast doubt on his guilt.

Johnny Lee Gates, 63, was convicted in 1977 of murder, rape and robbery in the slaying of Katharina Wright, 19, in an apartment in Columbus. Through the years, Gates has maintained his innocence.

Earlier this year, the state Supreme Court ruled Gates deserved a new trial after DNA tests showed Gates’ DNA wasn’t found on fabric at the scene.

Gates this week entered an Alford plea to voluntary manslaughter and armed robbery in a negotiated deal that would get him freed with credit for the time he already had served behind bars. An Alford plea means the defendant denies guilt but acknowledges prosecutors have enough evidence to convict him.

Gates was then released Friday from the Muscogee County Jail, news outlets reported.

“I’ve fought for 43 years for this day,” Gates said in a statement. “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.”

Prosecutors and defense attorneys agreed to the plea deal Monday but Judge Bobby Peters initially didn’t approve of the terms because while Gates was pleading guilty to the crime, he also continued to maintain his innocence.

Peters said he didn’t want people to plead guilty to get out of jail, but he later accepted the plea.

Gates was convicted and sentenced to death in August 1977. His sentence was later changed to life in prison without parole because he was found to be intellectually disabled. Execution of the intellectually disabled is prohibited by federal and state law.