In handwritten notes, Columbus prosecutors described prospective African-American jurors as “slow,” “ignorant,” “con artist” and “fat.” They also jotted a “B” or an “N” next to black people’s names on jury lists and routinely ranked them as the least desirable jurors. This astonishing system of race discrimination, revealed in a court motion filed Monday, was intended to exclude black people from juries in seven death-penalty cases against black defendants in the 1970s.
The motion was filed on behalf of Johnny Lee Gates, who is serving a sentence of life without parole for the 1976 rape and murder of Katrina Wright. It contends that Gates deserves a new trial because prosecutors made a concerted effort to keep black people off his jury. In Gates’ case, the prosecution struck all four prospective black jurors.
“Every person accused of a criminal offense has the right to a fair trial that’s free of race discrimination,” said Patrick Mulvaney, a lawyer with the Southern Center for Human Rights and a member of Gates’ legal team. “Mr. Gates’s trial was undermined by race discrimination from the start.”
In court filings, Gates’ lawyers say the prosecution’s alleged discrimination against black jurors “was harmful to the community and the integrity of the judicial system.”
The Muscogee County District Attorney’s Office has yet to explain or defend the exclusion of black jurors by its prosecutors in the 1970s. Instead, in a recent court filing, it said Gates’ claims should be rejected because he is relying on just seven capital cases. To prevail, Gates must show systematic exclusion of blacks “in case after case, whatever the circumstances, whatever the crime and whoever the defendant or victim may be,” the DA’s office said.
The DA’s office had repeatedly refused to turn over its jury notes to Gates’ lawyers until Senior Superior Court Judge John Allen ordered prosecutors to release the records to the plaintiffs in March.
District Attorney Julia Slater told the AJC Monday that she will have no comment for now on the filing. Slater took office about 30 years after the events described in the motion.
Rape and murder of German immigrant, 19
Gates was convicted and sentenced to death during a three-day trial in 1977. He was re-sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole in 2003 while appealing his case on claims he is intellectually disabled.
Prosecutors said Gates sexually assaulted and killed Wright, a 19-year-old German immigrant who had moved to Columbus just 12 days earlier to be with her husband, a soldier at Fort Benning. Gates posed as a gas company employee to gain entry into the apartment, prosecutors say.
Gates took $480 in cash from Wright. He then bound her hands and gagged and blindfolded her before shooting her in the head with a .32-caliber pistol, prosecutors said.
Although Gates gave a videotaped confession, his description of what happened did not fully match with the physical evidence in the case, say lawyers from the Georgia Innocence Project, who also represent Gates. They have obtained court orders for DNA testing.
The two prosecutors who tried the case against Gates were then-District Attorney William Smith and his assistant DA Douglas Pullen, who later succeeded Smith as district attorney.
Smith was involved in four of the seven death-penalty cases that were tried from 1976 to 1979, the motion said. In three of those cases, all 15 prospective black jurors were struck by the prosecution. In the fourth case, involving defendant William Henry Hance, prosecutors struck 10 of the 13 prospective black jurors, allowing two African-Americans to decide his fate, the motion said.
But in Hance’s case, “an all-white jury was impossible because the pool of prospective jurors had more black citizens than the prosecutors had strikes,” the motion noted.
27 of 27 black jurors struck from pool
Pullen was involved in five of the death-penalty trials, and all of them had all-white juries. In those cases, 27 of the 27 prospective black jurors were struck by the prosecution, the motion said.
Michael Lacey, a Georgia Tech mathematics professor, reviewed the jury strikes made by prosecutors in these seven capital cases. The probability that black jurors were removed for race-neutral reasons was .000000000000000000000000000004 percent, Lacey said in a sworn statement filed by Gates’ legal team.
Pullen’s name surfaced in recent years in the case against Timothy Foster, a black man who was sentenced to death in Floyd County for killing a 79-year-old widow in 1986. Pullen, while still a prosecutor in Columbus, assisted with jury selection in Foster’s trial in Rome. In that case, prosecutors struck all four prospective black jurors.
High court decries similar tactic in Rome case
In 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court condemned the prosecution for improperly assembling an all-white jury in Foster’s case and repudiated their stated reasons for striking all four prospective black jurors. The ruling referred to the prosecution team’s color-coded jury notes that listed potential black jurors as “#B1,” “#B2,” “#B3” and so on.
“(T)he focus on race in the prosecution’s file plainly demonstrates a concerted effort to keep black prospective jurors off the jury,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for a 7-1 majority.
In Gates’ case, prosecutors’ notes designated prospective white jurors with a “W” and prospective black jurors with an “N.” One set of notes ranked prospective jurors on a scale of “1” to “5,” with one being the least desirable and five being the most favored to have on the jury.
All four prospective black jurors were designated as a “1,” with no explanation why. A note explaining why the only white juror received a “1” said he was “opposed” to capital punishment but could still impose the penalty.