State v. Gates, 031320 GASC, S19A1130

Docket Nº:S19A1130, S19X1131
Opinion Judge:Bethel, Justice.
Judge Panel:Melton, C.J., Nahmias, P.J., and Blackwell, Boggs, Peterson, Warren, and Ellington, J.J. concur.
Case Date:March 13, 2020
Court:Supreme Court of Georgia







Nos. S19A1130, S19X1131

Supreme Court of Georgia

March 13, 2020

Bethel, Justice.

In these cases, both the State and Johnny Lee Gates appeal from the grant of Gates' extraordinary motion for new trial by the trial court. In Case No. S19A1130, the State argues that the trial court abused its discretion when it determined that Gates should receive a new trial because of the discovery of new DNA evidence that is material and exculpatory. The State also argues that the trial court erred when it also appeared to grant Gates' extraordinary motion on the basis of Arizona v. Youngblood, 488 U.S. 51 (109 S.Ct. 333, 102 L.Ed.2d 281) (1988), due to destruction of evidence by the State. In Case No. S19X1131, Gates cross-appeals, arguing that the trial court should have also granted him a new trial on his claim that the process by which the jury at his 1977 trial was selected was marred by racial discrimination. Because we find no abuse of the trial court's discretion in its grant of a new trial to Gates on the basis of the newly discovered DNA evidence, we affirm that judgment in Case No. S19A1130. In light of that determination, we need not consider the State's argument in Case No. S19A1130 relating to Gates' Youngblood claim or the arguments raised by Gates in Case No. S19X1131.

1. Trial and Sentence.

On February 1, 1977, Gates, an African-American male who was then 21 years old, was charged by a Muscogee County grand jury with the murder, rape, and armed robbery of Katharina Wright, a 19-year-old white female. In the late summer of 1977, after a three-day trial held before an all-white jury, Gates was found guilty on all counts and sentenced to death.

The evidence presented at trial showed the following.1 Just before 1:30 p.m. on November 30, 1976, Wright was found dead in her apartment by her husband, an Army service member who, at the time, was stationed at Fort Benning. He found Wright lying on the floor of the apartment with an apparent gunshot wound to her head. There was blood on the floor beside her head. Her hands had been tied behind her waist with a white bathrobe belt and a black necktie, and she had three other neckties wrapped around her face.

Wright's husband also noticed that the contents of Wright's purse had been dumped out, the sheets had been pulled off the couple's bed, and $480 in cash had been taken from under the mattress in the apartment. Wright's husband testified that the $480 was "all twenties," that this was the only cash that was in the apartment, and that he had placed it under the mattress the night before. According to Wright's husband, there was no sign of forced entry to the apartment. He testified that he did not have sex with Wright on November 30 or the evening before.

Wright's husband called the police, and officers arrived at the scene a few minutes later. One officer testified that he photographed the scene and attempted to find latent fingerprints in the apartment.2 He testified that he dusted several areas of the apartment but that he did not dust the apartment's heater or the closet in which it was housed. The officer testified that fingerprints typically do not last more than two or three weeks and that they "start drying up" and are "harder to get" after that period of time. He found no usable prints when he searched Wright's apartment on November 30, 1976.

Wright's body was examined and photographed at the scene. An investigator with the Columbus Police Department testified that, when she examined Wright's body, she noted that three black neckties had been tied in tight knots around Wright's face. The investigator also noted that a white bathrobe belt and another black necktie had been used to bind Wright's hands and wrists. The belt had been tied "very, very tightly" around Wright's hands and wrists, and the necktie had been knotted around her wrists.3

The medical examiner testified that Wright suffered one gunshot wound to the head, which caused her death, and bruising on her left thigh. A gynecologist testified that Wright suffered other injuries that were consistent with sexual assault and that there was evidence that Wright had sexual intercourse on the day she was killed.4

One of Wright's neighbors, Donald Hudgins, testified at trial that, around noon on the day Wright was killed, a black male who he was "absolutely positive" was between 23 and 27 years old and five feet nine inches or five feet ten inches in height knocked on his apartment door. Hudgins testified that the man told him he was "from the gas company" and that he needed to turn off the gas in Hudgins' apartment. Hudgins further testified that, the next day, he read in the newspaper that Wright had been killed at the apartment complex. He then reported to the police that someone had come to his apartment around the time Wright was killed.

Two months later, on the afternoon of January 31, 1977, Hudgins was asked by detectives to view a live lineup of five suspects at the police station. Hudgins originally viewed the lineup from behind a two-way mirror, but he then requested to see the men in the lineup "face to face." In addition to being viewed by Hudgins, each participant in the lineup was asked to say, "I'm from the gas company." In that lineup, Hudgins identified Gates as the man who came to his apartment on the day of Wright's death. At trial, Hudgins also identified Gates in the courtroom.

On cross-examination, Hudgins admitted that Gates was two to three years younger and four to five inches shorter than the person Hudgins described during his direct testimony regarding the man who came to his door. Hudgins also testified that, of the four other people in the live police lineup besides Gates, one was "considerably taller" than Gates and one was "considerably heavier."

The detective who conducted the lineup later testified that, after conducting the lineup, he and Gates saw Hudgins in the hallway of the police station. The detective testified that Gates said, "I know that man. That was the man that I told I was from the gas company."

That same afternoon, Gates was interviewed by another detective at the police station. The detective learned that Gates had only a sixth-grade education. Gates was given Miranda warnings, 5and after signing a waiver-of-rights form, he spoke with the detective. The detective told Gates that he wanted to talk to him about the investigation of Wright's death and told Gates "some of the things that had been found out during the investigation of the case, which indicated that [Gates] may have been the subject that was wanted." According to the detective, Gates then admitted to killing Wright and gave some details about the commission of the crime. The detective reduced Gates' statement into a typewritten account, and Gates signed it.

That statement was entered into evidence at trial. In it, Gates stated that, on November 30, 1976, he obtained a gun from a man named James Taylor because he was planning a robbery. He then went to Wright's apartment complex where he first encountered a white man matching Hudgins' description. Gates told the man that he was from the gas company and that his gas might be off for a little while. After he spoke with the man, he went to Wright's apartment and knocked on the door. Wright came to the door, and Gates told her that he was with the gas company. Wright told Gates "that she called [the gas company] yesterday." Wright let him in the apartment and told him that she wanted him to fix the fan on her heater. She gave him a can of oil, and he began oiling the belt of the fan.

According to Gates' statement, he then threatened to rob Wright. She said that she had no money and that all he could get from her was sex. Gates then had sex with Wright and again demanded to know where she kept her money. Wright then gave him $500-$300 from under the mattress and $200 that had been hidden behind a tape player in the living room.[6] Gates then told Wright to go back to the bed. Wright sat down on the side of the bed, and he tied her hands behind her with the belt from her bathrobe. He then used two black neckties ties he found in a dresser drawer to cover her eyes and mouth. Wright then kicked Gates and told him that she would "identify" him. He then shot her in the head. As he fled the room, he noticed that she was still sitting on the side of the bed.

After Gates signed his typewritten confession, detectives asked Gates if he would go to Wright's apartment with them. Gates agreed, and when they arrived there around 4:00 p.m. on January 31, the detectives asked Gates to describe what happened there. At 4:10 p.m., the detectives began video-recording Gates as he spoke to them in the apartment. That recording was played for the jury at trial. In it, after again receiving Miranda warnings, Gates recounted a story similar to that set forth in the typewritten confession. In the recording, however, he said that Wright did not resist him in any way when the two had sex. Gates also said that Wright gave him $480 in cash when he demanded money after they had sex-$300 "in twenty dollar bills" from under the mattress and an additional $180 from behind a tape player in "twenties, fives, and ones." He told the detectives that he tied her hands behind her back with the belt from her robe and that he tied two black neckties around her face. He said that, after he fled the apartment, he returned the gun to a man named James from whom he had borrowed the gun. He could not recall James' last name. On cross-examination at trial, two of the officers who accompanied Gates through the apartment denied that they or anyone else from the police department had previously taken Gates through Wright's...

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