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A judge in Columbus, Georgia has reportedly ordered a new trial in a 43 year old rape and murder case based on new DNA evidence, and condemning “undeniable” race discrimination during jury selection by the prosecution.

According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the ruling by Senior Muscogee County Superior Court Judge John Allen overturns the convictions against Johnny Lee Gates.

Gates was sent to death row for the 1976 rape and murder of Katrina Wright. Wright was a 19-year-old German immigrant who had moved to Columbus to be with her husband, a soldier at Fort Benning.

“We are grateful to the court for recognizing the evidence of Mr. Gates’ innocence, and for taking this important step towards justice,” Clare Gilbert, executive director of the Georgia Innocence Project, told the AJC.

Gates, who was re-sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole in 2003, challenged his convictions based on new DNA evidence and the discovery of prosecutors’ notes that seemed to discriminate against prospective African-American jurors.

“The prosecutors clearly engaged in systematic exclusion of Blacks during jury selection in this case,” Allen wrote in a Jan. 10 decision. “They identified the black prospective jurors by race in their jury selection notes, singled them out … and struck them to try Gates before an all-white jury.”

The prosecutors’ notes reportedly labeled prospective white jurors with a “W” and Black jurors with an “N.” According to AJC prosecutors also described some prospective black jurors as “slow,” “old + ignorant,” “cocky,” “con artist,” “hostile” and “fat.”

Prospective jurors were also ranked on a scale of 1 to 5. All Black jurors were rated a “1.” The only one of the 43 prospective white jurors who got a “1” said he was opposed to the death penalty, Allen noted.

“Taken together, the notes demonstrate a purposeful and deliberate strategy to exclude Black citizens and obtain all-white juries,” Allen said.

The AJC reports, the defendant must show that he/she was “diligent in bringing his claims without undue delay” to be granted a new trial. Because Gates “could not give a reasonable explanation why he didn’t bring his race discrimination claims sooner than decades after his trial, he cannot get a new trial on that ground,” Allen said.

But, that was not an issue with the DNA evidence.

During the trial, prosecutors reportedly said the killer stole $480 in cash from Wright. A state investigator testified that “the killer tied a bathrobe belt “very, very tightly” around Wright’s hands and double-knotted the belt. A necktie was also tied around the victim’s hands, with knots binding it together.”

AJC reports, Gates’ legal team presented evidence that Gate’s DNA was not found on the necktie or bathrobe belt during a hearing last year.

“The exclusion of Gates’ profile to the DNA on the two items is material and may be considered exculpatory,” Allen said. “Therefore, Gates is entitled to a new trial.”


Georgia Judge Orders New Trial In 1976 Case That Sent Man To Death Row  was originally published on