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Wrongly imprisoned, Donald Gates adjusts to freedom after 28 years

By Keith L. Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 9, 2010; A01

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.

Dwelling on what happened, he says, isn't productive. "I'm not into 'Why me?' I'm into my future," he said, "Being bitter isn't going to change what happened, and it won't give me those years back." He won't say whether he will sue the government for his incarceration, and although some states have an automatic compensation system for exonerated inmates, there is no such mechanism for defendants in the District who were prosecuted by the U.S. attorney's office. However, the Cincinnati-based Ohio Justice and Policy Center has established a trust for Gates.

As a child, Gates was fascinated with mechanics, especially planes. When he was 3, his parents and four siblings moved to Akron, Ohio, after his father got a job at a tire manufacturing plant. After graduating from high school, Gates went to the University of Akron for a year before enlisting in the Air Force to nurture his love of aerodynamics.

In the mid-1970s, while stationed in Richmond, Gates visited the District often, including at least twice when he left his post without permission and was declared a deserter, court records show.

He left the military and relocated to the District. For the next four years, Gates drank excessively. He never had a fixed address and often lived in shelters for the homeless. He worked occasionally for the city's labor pool unloading trucks and doing carpentry and construction. And he was in and out of the D.C. jail, according to court records. In 1980 and 1981, records show, Gates was arrested six times for robbery and assault. He won't talk about those years.

On July 20, 1981, about a month after the nude body of Catherine Schilling, 21, was found in Rock Creek Park with five bullet wounds in her head, Gates was arrested on a warrant for failure to appear in court on another case. During his processing, according to court records, police took a sample of Gates's hair.

These were the days before sophisticated DNA tests, so that hair and three witnesses sent Gates to prison. FBI analyst Michael P. Malone testified that a hair found on Schilling's body was a biological match for Gates. But in a 1997 review, the Justice Department found that Malone and 13 other analysts made false reports on various cases across the country and performed inaccurate tests.

Three years later, in a letter to the District's U.S. attorney's office, Justice officials told prosecutors about Malone and mentioned Gates's case specifically. But according to sources in the office, prosecutors examined the testimony and dismissed the notion that Malone was the key factor in Gates's conviction. Justice officials are reviewing the U.S. attorney's office's handling of the case.

"We deeply regret the fact that Mr. Gates was imprisoned for a crime that we now know he did not commit," Channing Phillips, acting U.S. attorney for the District, said in a statement. "Unfortunately, the criminal justice system is not infallible."

The other big mistake was the testimony of Gerald Mack Smith, a paid government informant who told police that he and Gates were drinking in a park when Gates said he wanted to rob "that pretty white girl," but when she resisted, he raped and shot her.

Smith was paid $50 for his initial tip, according to court records. Then he was given $250 for choosing Gates out of a photo spread of 10 suspects and $1,000 for testifying before the grand jury. Four of Smith's robbery cases were also dismissed. Gates said he had never seen Smith until his trial.

'I had to fight'

Since his first day in jail, Gates fought for his freedom. While sitting in the maximum-security cell at the former Lorton Prison in Fairfax County, Gates became frustrated with his court-appointed attorney, so he wrote the first of what would become dozens of letters to D.C. Superior Court judges. In that one, he asked for another attorney.

"I had to fight," Gates says. "It was my life on the line."

But nothing worked. The jury believed the witnesses, and Gates went to prison.

In 1988, Gates read about DNA testing and wrote the Superior Court again. "All I'm asking is that the lab be allowed to make the DNA prints so you can see, your honor, that the hairs weren't mine either. I will pay for the cost for the DNA," he wrote.

Judge Fred B. Ugast consented and appointed D.C. lawyer Roger Durban to oversee the testing. But the science was in its early stages, and the results were nonconclusive. So Gates remained in prison.

Over the next 20 years, with his hands and feet shackled, he was shuttled to eight federal prisons across the country. His sister would write him, letting him know that their father, then their mother and eventually two of their three brothers had died.

He spent nine years in Lorton during the height of the District's crack wars in the mid-1980s. Violence was common. "If you didn't find a way to survive, you were dead by nightfall," he said. "Every day I had to find a way to survive." He wouldn't elaborate.

For years, Gates would get on his knees each night and whisper what he called long, eloquent prayers asking God for his freedom. But as time wore on, his faith weakened and his arthritis worsened. So he shortened the prayer to "Please help, God." Then to an even shorter and simpler "Help."

He started to read and read. In 1995, he earned an associate degree in business management from Park University. Professors would drive to his prison to teach the classes, and he used Pell grants to pay the tuition.

A little more than two years ago, as Durban was cleaning out his Southeast Washington office for his retirement, he wrote Ugast a final letter urging him to order another DNA test. The letter was referred to Sandra K. Levick, who oversees cold and special cases. Her office sent Gates a letter saying his case was being reopened. After two years of court hearings and work locating reliable DNA samples from the case, Ugast ordered the tests.

"Mr. Gates's case is a reminder of the critical importance of the presumption of innocence," Levick said.

On Dec. 15, Ugast came out of semi-retirement and signed Gates's exoneration papers.

Gates became the 249th U.S. inmate exonerated through post-conviction DNA testing since 1989, and the second in the District. His 28 years behind bars is among the longest served by those defendants and more than twice the 13-year average.

Keeping track of time

The government gave Gates $75 and a Greyhound ticket. During the nearly three-day bus trip to his new home, Gates dreamed of his first spicy fried chicken dinner but had to settle for greasy burgers at bus stop cafes.

He left prison with two things that he says mean the world to him. First is his pocket dictionary. Gates loves to write and read. He keeps the dictionary with him wherever he goes so he can look up words that he doesn't understand. He also needs to check his spelling when he writes a letter or a memo, even to himself.

His other prized possession is his $34 Timex watch. Gates doesn't like to stay anywhere too long. He gets antsy, likes to keep moving. "I only got a little time left out here in the free world," he said.

In prison, the watch was critical. It allowed him to stay focused on getting to class, getting to meals before food ran out and getting to the rec room so he could sit while watching TV.

Now that he's out, he doesn't have many appointments. But when he does, it's huge. One day last month, he realized that the only identification he had was issued by a prison. So he went to the Department of Motor Vehicles to get a state ID card.

It took seven hours.

Gates went from window to window, with each clerk telling him he needed this document from this prison or that document from that court.

"I was so frustrated. I was suffering," he said. But it was worth every miserable second. "I knew I was home."

The one regret Gates will talk about is not having kids. "That hurts," he said.

Things are slowly starting to feel normal again. He's getting into a routine that will allow him to do such things as return to Akron to visit his parents' graves.

"I just want to be the average Joe," he said.

He's also looking forward to his first date with a woman he met at the mall while Christmas shopping with his family.

But not yet. "I'm not focused on that right now," he says. "I have to get my life together first -- like getting some sleep."

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