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Murderer's life spared; Gates resentenced to life without parole after mistrial.

Thursday, November 13, 2003


Posted on Thu, Nov. 13, 2003

Murderer's life spared

Gates resentenced to life without parole after mistrial


Staff Writer

"Death row."

Those two words helped ensure that Johnny Lee Gates will not die in the place they represent.

Gates, 48, was convicted 26 years ago of murdering 19-year-old Katharina Gertrud Wright during a rape and armed robbery in 1977. Eleven years ago his death sentence was blocked pending a trial to determine whether he is mentally retarded and thus ineligible for execution under Georgia law.

A counselor from Jackson State Prison mentioned Gates' status as a death row inmate Wednesday, during the sixth day of Gates' mental capacity trial. Because that information most likely tainted the jury, which was not supposed to consider Gates' guilt or innocence, Muscogee Superior Court Judge John Allen was forced to declare a mistrial.

Attorneys from the defense and prosecution then met behind closed doors to draw up an agreement which allowed Allen to resentence Gates to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The new sentence makes Gates' mental capacity a moot issue since the mentally retarded can serve prison time even though they may not be executed.

A typical line of questioning led to the mistrial.

Wesley Baker, a prison counselor, was explaining to defense attorney Gary Parker when he first met Gates. He said: "By the time I got there he was already on death row."

Spectators and attorneys gasped. The witness and jury then were led quickly from the courtroom.

Defense attorney George Kendall immediately moved for a mistrial based on excessive prejudice in the jury.

District Attorney Gray Conger argued that the judge should instruct the jury to ignore the statement, then continue with testimony.

"I don't know how this jury could possibly disregard that this man is on death row," Allen said.

The judge said he saw no alternative except to declare a mistrial.

"I dread this more than anything I can think of -- the expense, the time, you know. I just have to judge it a mistrial. I just don't know how you can get around it," Allen said. "If I elaborate on this, it just makes it worse."

Attorneys from both sides then agreed to accept the imposition of a sentence of life without parole. In a soft voice, Gates told Allen he understood the resentencing deal and accepted the consequences.

If Gates had been judged mentally retarded, his sentence would have been reduced to life in prison with the possibility of parole because when he was convicted, murder convictions carried only a death sentence or life in prison with the possibility of parole. He would immediately have been eligible for parole.

After the proceedings, defense attorney Ron Tabak said that although mental capacity is no longer an issue for Gates, he and the other defense attorneys will remain on Gates' case and will examine issues that could lead to an appeal of his conviction.

In his office after the trial, Conger said he believed a mistrial was unnecessary because the jurors would have disregarded the information if Allen had instructed them to do so.

The district attorney said he agreed to the resentencing because it will save the county additional court costs.

"I didn't think we needed to put in more time and money."

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