Johnny Lee Gates Free 43 Years After He Claimed Innocence
Supreme Court Granted New Trial After DNA Evidence Failed to Link Gates
Johnny Lee Gates’ 43 year saga in the criminal justice system is over.
Gates was convicted of killing a 19 year old woman in 1976 but claimed he was wrongfully convicted. His defense waged years of legal battles over evidence, racial prejudice and the defendant’s mental competency before the case reached a conclusion Friday afternoon.
Katharina Wright was a young military wife who had been living in Columbus less than two weeks when she was brutally raped and shot in the head at her apartment over $480 dollars cash according to court testimony. Wright’s neighbor told police he saw Johnny Lee Gates posing as a gas company worker. At the time Gates offered a written confession but key details didn’t add up.
Years later , like a case straight out of Forensic Files, the belt and tie used to bind Katharina Wright were discovered in the District Attorney’s office and then sent for testing. “A DNA expert found that Mr. Gates DNA is not present on the belt and tie. Mr. Gates would seek to present evidence that type B blood was found on the door next to the decedent’s body and both Mr. Gates and the decedent had type O blood.”
The Georgia Supreme Court ultimately ruled Gates was entitled to a new trial in March based on the DNA evidence but prosecutors and the defense agreed another trial at this late stage would be difficult. With help from his attorneys with the Southern Center for Human Rights, the Iowa Innocence Project and the Georgia Innocence Project, Gates entered an Alford plea meaning he still maintains his innocence but agrees to the conviction because it’s in his best interest. Gates plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter and armed robbery with credit for time served.
More than four decades after he says he was wrongfully convicted, Johnny Lee Gates walked out of the Muscogee County Jail a free man.
The victim’s widower was given an opportunity to address the court but declined to participate. The prosecutor’s office noted the victim’s husband watched the proceeding and fully supports the court’s decision.