On June 22, 1981, Catherine Schilling, a 21-year-old Georgetown University student, was found raped and murdered in Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C. She was nude and had been shot five times in the head.
On July 20, 1981, Donald Eugene Gates, 30, was arrested for failing to appear in court on an unrelated case and gave up a hair sample as part of a processing procedure.
Gates was charged with the rape and murder after a police informant, Gerald Mack Smith, claimed that he and Gates were drinking in the park when Gates said he wanted to rob the victim, but when she resisted, he killed her. Smith later picked out Gates’ photo. He was paid $50 for the initial tip and $250 for picking out the photograph. In all, Smith would be paid $1,300 for his help on the case. However, the police never revealed to the defense that Smith had two prior felony convictions and that days before he made the false statement about Gates, he had been indicted for a third felony. Facing a much longer sentence if convicted a third time, Smith helped the police in the Shilling investigation and the prosecution dismissed Smith’s third felony.
At Gates’ trial in 1982, key testimony came from the informant, Smith, and from FBI forensic analyst Michael Malone. Without the Brady material revealing Smith’s motives to lie, he was not adequately cross examined. FBI Special Agent Malone testified that Gates’ hairs were “microscopically indistinguishable” from hairs found on the victim’s body. Malone testified that in twelve years of examining hairs for the FBI, there were only two occasions out of ten thousand where the hairs from two people could not be distinguished. He went on to imply that based on that experience, the hair from the crime scene probably belonged to Mr. Gates. It turned out that despite the fact that Mr. Malone was with the hair unit throughout the 1980’s and 90’s, regardless of the year, he routinely testified that he had examined the hairs of 10,000 people in his career. On September 16, 1982, Gates was convicted. He was sentenced to 20 years to life in prison.
In 1988, Gates sought DNA testing on the hair and tests were attempted, but DNA testing was in its infancy and the results were inconclusive.
In 1997, an internal review of the FBI laboratory found that Malone and other analysts made false and misleading reports on cases across the country and in numerous instances, their lab notes did not support their reported and testimonial conclusions.
In January, 2002, the U.S. Justice Department sent a letter to prosecutors in the case, informing them that Malone’s lab report was not supported by his notes and advising them to determine whether Malone’s hair testimony was material to the conviction. If it was material, DOJ intended to notify the defense of the lapse in Malone’s work. Although it was clearly material, the local US Attorney failed to report back to DOJ and Gates’ defense attorney was not notified.
In 2007, Gates sought DNA testing again with the help of Sandra Levick from the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia. Two years later, the request was granted and the tests, conducted on a semen sample collected at death and retained by the District of Columbia medical examiner’s office, eliminated him as the killer and rapist.
He was released on December 15, 2009 and on December 18, 2009, the charges were dismissed. Upon his release, Gates received $75 and a bus ticket to Ohio.
In May 2010, District of Columbia Superior Court Senior Judge Fred Ugast granted Gates a certificate of actual innocence. Ultimately, the real perpetrator was identified through the DNA profile of the semen recovered post mortem. The real perpetrator had worked as a temp at the office building of the victim and had followed her home when she left work. By the time he was identified, he was deceased.
– Maurice Possley
State: District Of Columbia
Charge: First degree felony murder while armed, rape while armed, carrying a pistol without a license
Conviction: First degree felony murder while armed, rape while armed, carrying a pistol without a license
Sentence: 20 to life
Incident Date: 06/22/81
Conviction Date: 09/16/82
Exoneration Date: 12/18/09
Served: 27 years
Race of Defendant: African American
Race of Victim: Caucasian
Status: Exonerated by DNA
Type of Forensic Science Problem: Hair Analysis
Type of Crime: Homicide Related, Sex Crimes
Contributing Causes of Conviction: Informants, Unvalidated or Improper Forensic Science
Innocence Project Involved: No
Death Penalty Case: no
Accused Plead Guilty: No
The Alternative Perpetrator Identified: No, Yes
Real Perpetrator Convicted of Subsequent Crime: No, Yes
Compensation: State Statute