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Idaho Innocence Project Lab helps overturn conviction with new DNA evidence after 43 years

Claire Gilbert and Greg Hampikian
Hampikian and Clare Gilbert Director of The Georgia Innocence Project at the Georgia hearing about new DNA evidence in the 1976 Murder.

Today the GA Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s ruling for a new trial for Johnnie Lee Gates.  Mr. Gates has spent 42 years in prison, convicted of murder, rape, and robbery.  He was sentenced to death and spared only because his lawyers argued that he was intellectually disabled.  Gates has long maintained his innocence in hand-written court filings.

In 2015, the Georgia Innocence Project (GIP) investigated the case and was told by police and prosecutors that all the evidence had been lost or destroyed.  In a remarkable discovery, two student interns with the Project went to review the case file at the prosecutor’s office and found what appeared to be key evidence.  in a lumpy manila envelope labeled bathrobe and neckties.  These items had been used to tie up the victim and had been collected during the original investigation.

The GIP project consulted with DNA analyst Dr. Greg Hampikian at Boise State University’s Idaho Innocence Project lab.  Hampikian has a Department of Justice grant to test old evidence items with new DNA procedures and software for inmates claiming innocence.  He found that the evidence was suitable for advanced testing, and the GIP then asked a judge to grant testing.  The request was granted, and Hampikian with the GIP arranged for the items to have DNA extracted at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI).  After testing at the GBI, Hampikian analyzed the data and then arranged for further analysis by TrueAllele software (Cybergenetics), paid for through his DOJ grant.  Hampikian submitted an affidavit explaining that his analysis and the TrueAllele software agreed, Mr. Gates was excluded from the ligatures.  He went on to explain that TrueAllele had identified the same DNA profiles on both pieces of evidence.  Hampikian and Dr. Mark Perlin of Cybergenetics attended the May 2018 hearing where Dr. Perlin presented his final results.  The state also called a scientist from the GBI to testify.  Mr. gates was represented at hearing by the Georgia Innocence Project and the Southern Center for Human Rights.

In January of 2019, the Georgia court ruled in Gates’ favor and granted him a new trial, based on the new DNA evidence.  However, the state appealed and Mr. Gates remained in prison.  Today’s decision by the Georgia Supreme Court affirms Mr. Gates’s right to a new trial.