A local prosecutor in Washington, DC, spoke to the Washington Post this weekend about what it was like to learn that he helped wrongfully convict an innocent man.
J. Brooks Harrington helped convict
of raping and murdering a Georgetown University student in 1981. Gates was finally exonerated in December 2009 based on DNA testing.
Harrington based his case against Gates on several pieces of evidence. According to an FBI forensics analyst, a hair taken from Gates matched a hair found on the victim. Harrington also relied on testimony from a paid informant who said Gates admitted to murder when a robbery went wrong. Gates had never met the informant.
Harrington told the Washington Post
“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.”
In 1997 the Justice Department found that the FBI analyst who reviewed the hair sample made false reports on cases across the country, including Gates’. And in 2000, the Justice Department asked the U.S. Attorney’s office to review the case. The prosecutor’s office reviewed the case but found that the informant’s testimony and Gates’s criminal history outweighed the false testimony from the FBI.
The Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia went on to handle Gates’ post-conviction appeals. Gates was finally freed from prison and his conviction was vacated in December when a D.C. Superior Court acknowledged Gates was wrongfully imprisoned for 27 years.
Gates is now living in Tennessee adjusting to life outside of prison.