The following editorial was published by the Jacksonville (FL) Observer on December 18, 2009.
Where’s the justice in this?
Donald Eugene Gates spent 28 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Convicted in 1981 of the brutal rape and murder of Catherine Schilling, a 21-year-old Georgetown University student, Gates got 20 years to life and was sent to federal prison in Arizona.
Gates was released a few days ago after DNA testing proved he didn’t commit that crime. To help him restart his life, the government gave Gates some winter clothes, $75 and a bus ticket to his hometown, Akron, Ohio. The cab ride from the Tucson prison to the Greyhound bus station cost him $35.
Gates was forced to spend nearly half his 58 years behind bars after an FBI crime lab analyst linked two pubic hairs found at the crime scene to Gates. The reliability of that analyst, Michael Malone, was called into question in several subsequent cases.
A 1997 FBI inspector general’s report concluded Malone and other analysts in the bureau’s Washington crime lab had submitted false reports and performed inaccurate tests in criminal cases. In 2003, a forensic scientist found problems with Malone’s work in the Gates case, but prosecutors never gave that information to Gates’ lawyer.
Gates languished in prison for six more years until the District of Columbia’s Public Defenders Service persuaded the judge who had sentenced him to order a DNA test on the pubic hairs. An earlier test, using a less reliable method, had proved inconclusive. The new test exonerated Gates.
Now, with whatever’s left of his $75 from the federal government, Gates is expected to get on with his life.
When he went to prison in 1981, Ronald Reagan was in the first year of his presidency. “Dallas” was the top-rated television show. The Oakland Raiders had won the Super Bowl, and 5-year-old Tiger Woods appeared on the TV show “That’s Incredible.” Motorola didn’t introduce the first commercial cell phone until two years later.
The world Gates has just entered bears little resemblance to the one he left behind after his wrongful conviction. The nature of work – and the skills needed to land a job – have changed dramatically over the past quarter-century. There’s little chance Gates will find a job that will make him self-sufficient without some special training.
And there’s little hope he won’t fall back into the clutches of the criminal justice system if something isn’t done to compensate him for his lost years.
Such an act of contrition shouldn’t be slow in coming.
The District of Columbia allows people who were wrongfully convicted to seek compensation, but why make Gates go through the motions? Why make him get a lawyer and litigate this in court? Why force him to sue for the help he needs to recover from the injustice he’s suffered?
In ordering Gates’ release, D.C. Superior Court Judge Fred Ugast said, “We are fortunate … that the technology has been developed that permits us to at least try to right a wrong.” But while setting Gates free may soothe the judge’s conscience, much more needs to be done to free him from the ravages of his wrongful conviction.