Judge: New DNA evidence means man is entitled to new trial

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A Georgia man who has spent more than four decades in prison for murder is entitled to a new trial because new testing found his DNA wasn't on key pieces of evidence, a judge ruled.

Johnny Lee Gates, 63, was convicted of murder, rape, and robbery in the November 1976 fatal shooting of 19-year-old Katharina Wright in a Columbus apartment where she lived with her husband, a soldier at nearby Fort Benning. Wright's hands were bound with the white belt from her bathrobe, and black neckties were used as a gag and blindfold.

Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit Superior Court Judge John Allen ruled last week that Gates is entitled to a new trial, citing new testing that showed his DNA was not on the fabric used to bind Wright. The judge also found that prosecutors at Gates' trial purposely excluded black jurors, but he wrote that evidence of that behavior was presented too late to declare a new trial on those grounds.

It's not clear whether prosecutors will appeal Allen's order or whether they will seek to try Gates again. District Attorney Julia Slater did not respond to an email and phone message seeking comment Thursday.

Gates was convicted and sentenced to death in August 1977. The sentence was later changed to life in prison without parole because he was found to be intellectually disabled. It's against state and federal law to execute people with intellectual disability.

Gates long maintained his innocence in handwritten court filings.

Two interns with the Georgia Innocence Project went to the district attorney's office in July 2015 to review the case file. Police and prosecutors had previously said there was no physical evidence to test, and the interns expected to find documents saying the evidence in the case had been destroyed or to find nothing at all.

But one of them found a lumpy manila envelope that said it contained a bathrobe belt and neckties. Inside were pieces of white and black fabric.

Innocence Project lawyers asked a judge to allow the items to be tested, saying the killer's DNA would have rubbed off on them while the killer was tying up Wright. After the testing, Gates' lawyers presented evidence at a hearing last year that showed his DNA was not on the items.

"(T)he DNA evidence is meaningful and exculpatory because it demonstrates that Gates was not the person who bound the victim's hands," Allen wrote in his Jan. 10 order.

Georgia Innocence Project executive director Clare Gilbert said in an emailed statement that she's "grateful to the court for recognizing the evidence of Mr. Gates' innocence, and for taking this important step towards justice."

The Southern Center for Human Rights, along with the Innocence Project, last year argued that Gates was also entitled to a new trial because prosecutors in the judicial circuit where he was tried purposely and systematically excluded black jurors from the trials of black men facing the death penalty in the late 1970s.

Gates, who is black, was convicted by an all-white jury. The court last year ordered the state to turn over prosecutors' jury selection notes.

Gates' attorneys discovered that prosecutors had written "W'' next to the names of white prospective jurors and "N'' next to the names of black prospective jurors and also put dots in the margins next to black prospective jurors' names, they said in a court filing in March. Black prospective jurors were described in the notes as "slow," ''old + ignorant," ''cocky," ''con artist," ''hostile" and "fat."

"The evidence of systematic race discrimination during jury selection in this case is undeniable," Allen wrote. After securing all-white juries, prosecutors made racially charged closing arguments "that infected the prosecution of these black defendants," Allen wrote.

Despite that discrimination, a new trial on those grounds is not merited because Gates failed "to reasonably account for the delay in bringing forth his motion sooner," Allen wrote.