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Prosecutor reflects on wrongful conviction in D.C. killing

Donald E. Gates, exonerated of murder and rape, is trying to adjust to freedom.
Donald E. Gates, exonerated of murder and rape, is trying to adjust to freedom. "I don't have any anger towards anyone," he said. (Wade Payne for The Post)
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By Keith L. Alexander
Saturday, March 6, 2010

It is the type of news no prosecutor wants to hear: The defendant you worked for months to send to prison for 28 years is actually innocent.

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J. Brooks Harrington received such news in December when a DNA test proved that Donald E. Gates, the District man Harrington prosecuted and helped send to prison, was innocent of raping and murdering a Georgetown University student in 1981.

"I can't express how sick this has made me feel," said Harrington, 61. "I was always trying to be about protecting people. To find out that I had the wrong guy is beyond description."

It was the first murder conviction overturned by DNA evidence in the history of the U.S. attorney's office in the District. Prosecutors there declined to talk about the Gates case publicly. Behind closed doors, many are checking and double-checking their caseloads to make sure they don't have another Gates.

"Not only can this happen again, but it will," said Harrington, now an ordained minister in Fort Worth. "Nobody has any interest in convicting somebody who didn't commit a crime. You do your best with the evidence you have. I was just flatly wrong about it. I did my best, and it wasn't good enough."

Emotion fractured Harrington's voice as he talked about the exonerated man. Harrington now keeps a photo of Gates that he downloaded from the Internet in a frame over his desk. Also on the desk is a letter he received from Gates after he was released. It reads:

"Rev. Harrington, I forgive you. I forgave you a long time ago. Now I consider you my friend. Your brother in Christ, Donald."

Gates's absolution left Harrington in tears. "It's one thing to say I ought to forgive and not have bitterness, but he really seems not to have any," Harrington said. "He was more than kind to me. He's an amazing man."

Meanwhile, Gates, 58, remains in Tennessee, trying to adjust to freedom just months after his release.

"I don't have any anger towards anyone," he said recently. "I can't focus on what has happened to me. I can only focus on the now."

For five years, Harrington was a star prosecutor U.S. Attorney's Office in the District. Between 1978 and 1983, he prosecuted about 70 of the District's most gripping rape and murder cases. During that time, he received a not guilty verdict in only five trials, he recalled. In 1982, he was promoted to deputy director of the D.C. Superior Court's felony trial division.

"Institutionally, you don't rise in the office by being afraid to prosecute difficult cases," Harrington said. "There's a certain amount of institutional pressure. The more you win difficult cases, the more you move up the totem pole."

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