A criminal oversight


Dec. 18, 2009, 1:49 p.m. | By Lauren Kestner | 10 years, 10 months ago


When 58-year-old Donald Gates walked out of an Arizona prison Tuesday morning with all his worldly possessions contained in a single cardboard box, he didn't express the bitterness or indignation one would expect from a man wrongly convicted of rape and murder. "I feel beautiful," he said as he boarded a Greyhound bus headed to his hometown in Ohio with a meager 75 dollars the government provided as compensation for his 28-year jail term.

Photo: District resident Donald Gates walks out of an Arizona prison after DNA testing proves he did not commit rape and murder in 1981. Picture courtesy of The Washington Post.

Gates's release came after Roger Durban, a court-appointed attorney from his original 1982 trial, requested in 2007 that judge Fred Ugast order another DNA test to reassess Gates' guilty verdict. The long overdue results of this investigation revealed what Gates had maintained all along: his innocence in the rape and subsequent murder of 21-year-old Catherine Schilling, found dead in Rock Creek Park in 1981. Ugast had previously approved Gates's request for genetic testing in 1988, but the less-sophisticated technology available to criminal investigators at the time did not yield conclusive results.

Since 1997 the government-led prosecution has mishandled supervision of the case's developments. The Justice Department released a case review that year discrediting the testimony of Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) analyst Michael Palone, who incorrectly linked hairs found on Schilling's body to Gates. More recently, the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences rejected the hair analysis technique entirely as a means of suspect identification in a criminal trial.

Prosecutors' failure to notify judge Ugast following the FBI's indictment of Palone, who rendered false professional judgment resulting in Gates's conviction, is a reprehensible obstruction of the American justice system. During the hearing held Tuesday, Ugast voiced his dissatisfaction with the prosecution, calling its failure to reconcile the inaccuracies in Palone's report with the 1982 ruling "outrageous." Apathy or administrative gridlock cannot absolve the prosecution of its failure to communicate with the judge. The review of Gates's case should not have slipped through the cracks - a man's liberty was at stake, and the prosecution's neglect cost him another 12 years in prison.

Gates deserves more than the pittance he received from the government after his conviction was overturned. Under federal law, he should be entitled to $50,000 per year in reparations for his incarceration. The district cannot return the 28 years Gates spent confined in a jail cell, deprived of opportunities for career advancement and the company of friends and family. However, money can provide much-needed financial compensation that Gates can use to begin rebuilding his life.




Lauren Kestner. Lauren Kestner loves Trader Joe's chocolates, cheesy television soap operas, summer trips to Lake Anna, coffee ice cream from Coldstone Creamery, hikes at Northwest Branch and shopping at Heritage. Playing soccer for Blair or her MSC club team and running at the gym consumes much … More »

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