Thursday, December 17, 2009

Wrongfully convicted man deserves better treatment

By DeWayne Wickham

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 was given a 20-years-to-life sentence and imprisoned in a 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 him some winter clothes, $75 and a one-way bus ticket to his hometown of Akron, Ohio. The cab ride from the Tucson prison to the bus station cost $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 him. The reliability of the work of that man, FBI agent 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 “made 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 turned that information over to Gates’ lawyer.

Gates languished in prison for six more years until the District of Columbia’s Public Defenders Service succeeded in getting the judge who sentenced him to order a DNA test on the pubic hairs. An earlier test, using a less reliable method, proved inconclusive. The new, more accurate test, exonerated Gates.

Now, with what is left of the $75 he got 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 recorded their last Super Bowl victory, and 5-year-old Tiger Woods made an appearance 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 when he was wrongfully convicted. The nature of work – and the skills needed to land a job – have undergone a drastic change over the past quarter century. There’s little chance Gates can find a job that’ll make him self-sufficient without special training.

And there’s little hope that he won’t fall back into the clutches of the criminal justice system if something isn’t done quickly to compensate Gates for his lost years.

Such an act of contrition shouldn’t be slow in coming.

The District of Columbia allows persons who were wrongfully convicted to seek compensation, but why make Gates go through the motions? Why make him get a lawyer and go into court to litigate this matter? Why force Gates to sue for the help he needs to recover from the injustice he’s suffered? He was sent to prison based on questionable testimony of an FBI agent and stayed there longer than he should have when local prosecutors allegedly failed to share potentially exculpatory evidence with his lawyer.

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 Gates from the ravages of his wrongful conviction.

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