Columbus man convicted of 1976 rape and murder is granted a new trial after lack of DNA evidence

Updated: Jan. 19, 2019 at 1:24 PM EST
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COLUMBUS, GA (WTVM) - After more than 4 decades behind bars, a Columbus man convicted of raping and murdering a soldier’s wife, may now be given a new trial. This comes after a local Judge ruled that new testing found his DNA was not present on key pieces of evidence.

Johnny Lee Gates, 63, was convicted of murder, rape, and robbery in November of 1976. Gates allegedly shot and killed 19-year-old Katharina Wright in her apartment where she lived with her husband, a soldier at Fort Benning.

Muscogee County 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 present on crucial pieces of evidence.

Police found that Wright’s hands were bound with the white belt from her bathrobe, and black neckties were used as a gag and blindfold.

However, when Innocence Project lawyers had these items tested last year, no DNA from Gates was found. Gate’s lawyers say DNA would have rubbed off on the items while the killer was tying up Wright.

″The 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.

In his report, judge Allen also wrote that systematic race discrimination during jury selection in this case infected the ultimate prosecution of Gates.

Last year, The Southern Center for Human Rights, along with the Georgia Innocence Project, argued that prosecutors in the judicial circuit where Gates was tried had purposely and systematically excluded black jurors from the trials of black men.

Gates, who is black, was convicted by an all-white jury.

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. Also in the notes, prosecutors had described black prospective jurors 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 and that infected the prosecution of these black defendants,” Allen wrote.

Allen acknowledged the discrimination but said it alone did not merit a new trial because Gates failed “to reasonably account for the delay in bringing forth this motion sooner."

Gates was given the death penalty in 1977 but the sentence was later changed to life in prison.

Gates has long maintained his innocence, despite a videotaped confession and an eyewitness who said he saw Gates at Wright’s apartment complex that day. Gate’s lawyer deputes both of these points, saying the confession was invalid due to Gates IQ and that the eyewitness description does not match Gates.

For now, Gates remain in jail while Allen’s ruling is appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court.

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