Wrongly imprisoned, Donald Gates adjusts to freedom after 28 years

Donald Gates was freed from prison in December 2009 after serving 28 years for a rape and murder for which he was subsequently cleared.
By Keith L. Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 9, 2010

KNOX COUNTY, TENN. -- It's a little after 3 a.m., and Donald Gates bolts upright from what he had hoped would be a normal night's sleep on his brother-in-law's sofa.

But the anxious thoughts racing through his mind won't allow him much rest. Don't sleep for long, he tells himself, or you'll wake up back in prison.

"It's like, man, that cage is still there," he says. "Just waiting."

It has been nearly a month since a D.C. Superior Court judge's legal assistant faxed a notice to a Tucson, Ariz., prison warden that vacated Gates's sentence and allowed him to walk free after 28 years behind bars. DNA tests on a tiny sample of evidence found at the District's medical examiner's office confirmed what Gates had been saying all along: He's innocent.

Now, Gates says, comes the hard part. He hasn't really had the time to be too happy about his release or bitter about his incarceration. His energy is too focused on the struggle to get back on his feet with no money, no job and a family he doesn't know very well anymore. The world has changed dramatically since 1982, when an FBI forensic analyst and a convicted felon-turned-informant both wrongly testified that Gates, then 30, raped and killed a Georgetown University student in Rock Creek Park on June 22, 1981.

For Gates, everything is smaller and more compact. Large computers and rotary phones have been replaced with handheld, push-button devices. Boxy Cadillacs and Buicks have been replaced with SUVs and compact cars. And those bulky, heavy television sets that were the biggest pieces of furniture in a room have morphed into sleeker models mounted on a wall.

"Things are very different now, and I have to get used to it. It's strange. But if feels so good. Man, it feels very good." With that, Gates fell against the back of his chair and let out a laugh that seemed to come from his toes.

At 58, Gates's belly laugh is one of the few signs of youth that remain. He walks slightly bent from the arthritis in his knees. His eyebrows are mixed with gray. He keeps his head clean-shaven now (his hair started falling out two years into his sentence). He has trouble seeing through his 1980s-style, prison-issued bifocals because the prescription is so old.

But the biggest adjustment is in his head. Locked away with murderers and hardened drug dealers, Gates learned to watch his back as inmates stabbed each other over a TV program or the last can of soda. And now, even in this slow Tennessee mountain town, it's hard for him to shed those survival instincts.

At a local restaurant, where the hostess greets diners with a smile and offers sweetened tea, Gates quickly looked over his shoulder anytime someone walked next to him or approached from behind. Whenever he walks into a room, his eyes scan each face, and he pinpoints the nearest exit.

"It's getting better," he said. "And I'm doing it less and less."

Mistakes were made

Gates wants to focus on today and tomorrow, he said. The first order of business is learning to drive again so he can get a license. He hopes to get off his brother-in-law's couch and into his own apartment. Then maybe he'll sell or manage real estate.

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