COLUMBUS, Ga. (CN) – Demanding a do-over of a 1977 rape and murder trial, attorneys highlighted new evidence Monday showing that systemic race discrimination led to their black client’s conviction by an all-white jury.
The motion in the case of Johnny Lee Gates comes nearly two months after the Muscogee County Superior Court directed prosecutors there to turn over all jury-selection records from the Gates case and five other Muscogee capital cases from the 1970s involving black defendants.
Attorneys for Gates from the Georgia Innocence Project and the Southern Center for Human Rights told the court Monday that this “evidence establishes that the prosecutors’ jury strikes in Gates’s case were the product of systematic race discrimination.”
“Race discrimination undermines the credibility and reliability of the justice system,” Patrick Mulvaney with the Southern Center for Human Rights said in a phone interview. “Mr. Gates is entitled to a new trial that is fair and free of race discrimination.”
Among other things, white prospective jurors from the 1970s cases were labeled with the letter “W” in the prosecutors’ notes, while black prospective jurors were marked with an “N.”
The notes go on to describe “black prospective jurors as ‘slow,’ ‘old + ignorant,’ ‘cocky,’ ‘con artist,’ ‘hostile,’ and ‘fat,’” according to the motion.
One white prospective juror meanwhile was identified by prosecutors “as a ‘top juror,’” the motion states, “because he ‘has to deal with 150 to 200 of these people that works for his construction co.’”
The evidence also showed that prosecutors ranked all black juror candidates as 1s on an unexplained scale of 1 to 5.
“These notes do not stand alone,” the motion states. “There were two prosecutors at Gates’s trial: Douglas Pullen and William Smith. Pullen was involved in five capital trials involving black defendants between 1975 and 1979. The prosecution struck 27 of 27 black prospective jurors across the five cases. Smith was involved in four capital trials involving black defendants in that same period. In three of the four, the prosecutors struck all of the black prospective jurors. In the fourth, they used 10 strikes to exclude black prospective jurors; however, an all-white jury was impossible because the final pool of prospective jurors had more black citizens than the prosecution had strikes.”
Attorney Mulvaney signed Monday’s motion, which notes that Gates has been incarcerated since 1977. Though Gates initially was condemned to face the death penalty, that sentence was later reduced to life in prison without parole.
The attorneys took up Gates’ case shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court called out racially-motivated juror strikes in the 2016 ruling Foster v. Chatman.
Timothy Tyrone Foster, the defendant in that case, was convicted in 1987 with Pullen leading the prosecution,
A decade before Pullen helped prosecute Gates, he was responsible in 1987 for striking all four black prospective jurors in Foster’s trial, Monday’s retrial motion states.
District Attorney Pullen is now retired.
Muscogee County DA Julia Slater said in an email she rarely comments on litigation but that she will file a brief if she “determine[s] an additional response is necessary.”