Correcting and Preventing Wrongful Convictions in D.C., Maryland and Virginia.

Donald Gates

Date / Location:June 22, 1981; Washington, DC Conviction:First degree rape-murder
Year of Conviction:20 years to life Release Date:December 15, 2009
Sentence:1982 Sentence Served:28 years
Real perpetrator found?:Not yet Contributing cause to wrongful conviction:Incentivized snitch testimony, lab fraud
Compensation?:Not yet

Nearly three decades after he was convicted of brutal rape and murder that he did not commit, Donald Gates was freed December 15, 2009 by a District of Columbia Superior Court Judge after DNA evidence proved that another man committed the crime.

Mr. Gates has always maintained his innocence.  Now, thanks to the hard work of Parisa Dehghani-Tafti and others from the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia, he finally has regained his freedom.

Gates was convicted for the June 1981 murder of Catherine Schilling in Rock Creek Park. Prosecutors claimed that the 21-year-old Schilling was on her way home from work when Gates attempted to rob her. When she resisted, they said, he raped her and then shot her in the head.

FBI Special Agent Michael Malone told jurors that two pubic hairs found on Schilling’s body were microscopically identical to a sample taken from Gates.  A woman also testified that Gates tried to rob her in the same park less than three weeks earlier. A convicted felon also testified that Gates confessed to the crime to him shortly after it occurred.

Gates has maintained he never met the informant Gerald Mack Smith, who was paid over $1000 to provide his testimony.  Four other cases that Smith had been paid to testify in eventually were dismissed. Incentivized snitch testimony is one of the leading causes of wrongful convictions.

It later surfaced that Malone had given false testimony in a series of murder cases across the country. Malone was singled out in a report by the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General, and his record was the subject of a Wall Street Journal investigation. Malone later admitted to lying on the stand in a death penalty case in Florida, the defense wrote.  Lab fraud is another leading contributor of wrongful convictions.

In 2009, PDS filed a motion under the Innocence Protection Act to have DNA testing performed on what biological evidence remained in the case. Those and subsequent tests not only proved that Gates was innocent of the crime, but also developed the DNA profile of the real perpetrator.  While investigating the case, Gates’ attorney learned that Malone’s work had been the subject of  a 2003 review initiated by the Justice Department and completed by the District’s U.S. Attorney’s Office.  During that review, a forensic scientist found that Malone’s lab report was not supported by his notes. Those findings were never were revealed to Gates’ counsel.

“This is outrageous,” Judge Ugast said in regards to Malone’s faulty analysis. He ordered a review of all convictions in the District in which Malone testified. “We are trying to right a wrong,” he said.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office and Public Defender Service are hopeful that the real perpetrator in the case will be identified soon by running the DNA sample through the FBI database.

Gates, now 58, was released from prison with $75 and a bus ticket to Ohio.  Since his exoneration, Gates has moved to Knox County, TN to be with family.  He has not yet been compensated for his wrongful conviction.

Among its extensive coverage of the case, the Washington Post wrote this editorial of the Gates case, and also caught up with him a few weeks after his exoneration to see how he was settling to his new life.