- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 25, 2015

COLUMBUS, Ga. (AP) - A Georgia man who has spent nearly 40 years in prison for the rape and killing of a young German woman in her apartment has consistently maintained his innocence and is asking a judge to allow new DNA testing in the decades-old case.

Johnny Lee Gates, 59, was convicted of murder, rape and robbery in the slaying of 19-year-old Katharina Wright in the apartment she shared with her husband, a soldier at nearby Fort Benning. They had been married six months and had moved to Columbus just weeks before the killing, said Christina Cribbs, a lawyer for Gates.

Wright’s husband found her body on the afternoon of Nov. 30, 1976. Her hands were bound with the white belt from her bathrobe, and black neckties were used to gag her and to cover her eyes. She had been shot once in the head.

Gates was arrested in January 1977 on unrelated charges. A police informant told investigators he had let Gates borrow his gun in November 1976 and that Gates later told him he shot Wright using the gun, according to court documents.

Gates signed a written confession and confessed in an interview videotaped at Wright’s apartment, according to a new motion filed by lawyers from the Innocence Project to request new DNA testing. Gates told police he posed as someone from the gas company to get into the apartment and then had sex with Wright, took $480 in cash from her, tied her up and shot her when she said she could identify him, the motion said.

Gates was convicted and sentenced to death in August 1977. His sentence was later changed to life in prison without parole because he was found to be intellectually disabled. Execution of the intellectually disabled is prohibited by federal and state law.

The Innocence Project lawyers contend not only that Gates’ confession was false, but that he wasn’t at Wright’s apartment on the afternoon in question. They say his intellectual disability made it easy for investigators to get him to confess to the crime. There are also inconsistencies in the case, a confession by another man and other problematic evidence, they said.

Gates has maintained his innocence in filings with the court over the years, many of them including citations of specific sections of Georgia law and handwritten in neat capital letters.

He reached out to the Georgia Innocence Project in 2006 seeking help with his case. But the organization said it was unable to help because it only handles cases where there is DNA evidence, the lawyers said. Columbus police, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the Muscogee County district attorney’s office said there was no physical evidence to test, the lawyers said.

Gates reached out again this year and the organization’s lawyers said they decided to see if they could track down evidence in the case or any records of the destruction of evidence.

Interns Catherine O’Neill, a junior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Bryan Reines, a senior at Emory University, went to the district attorney’s office on July 30 to review the case file. They expected to find documents saying the evidence in the case had been destroyed or to find nothing at all - either way, the case would be closed for them.

While digging through a box, Reines found a lumpy manila envelope and peered inside at pieces of white and black fabric. Writing on the outside said the envelope contained a bathrobe belt and neckties.

Recognizing they had likely found physical evidence, they took photos and then sealed the envelope without touching the contents. Cribbs and Aimee Maxwell, their supervisors at the innocence project, scrambled to get in touch with Gates’ most recent lawyers, who said he had an upcoming hearing on a motion he had filed himself.

Cribbs and Maxwell filed an amended motion asking the judge in the case to allow testing for DNA they say would likely have rubbed off on the items while the killer was tying up Wright. At the scheduled hearing Thursday, Assistant District Attorney Brad Bickerstaff asked for a 60-day delay since the amended motion was filed last week, and the judge granted his request.

Asked why the district attorney’s office had said the evidence in the case wasn’t available when the belt and neckties were in its possession, Bickerstaff said it is biological evidence from the case that is no longer available and those objects aren’t biological evidence. It appears the belt and neckties were exhibits used at trial, he said.

O’Neill and Reines, who were both at the hearing, said they were excited to have found something that might help, but they said Cribbs and Maxwell cautioned them against getting too optimistic.

“It’s easy to get carried away and imagine this amazing outcome that all started with something unexpectedly found in a DA’s box, but we have to be aware that there’s still the potential that it might not make a difference,” O’Neill said.

Even if the judge does allow the DNA testing, there’s a long road ahead that could go in many directions, Cribbs said.

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