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.
At Gates’ trial in 1982, key testimony came from FBI forensic analyst Michael Malone who said that Gates’ hairs were “microscopically indistinguishable” from hairs found on the victim’s body. A paid police informant also testified that Gates had confessed the crime to him.
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 reports on cases across the country and performed inaccurate laboratory tests.
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 the defense should be notified. Gates' defense attorney was not notified.
In 2007, Gates's former attorney, Roger Durban, requested that the Court and the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia re-examine the case. In 2008, Gates sought DNA testing again with the help of Sandra Levick of the Public Defender Service. Two years later, the request was granted and the tests, conducted on a sample of biological evidence found at 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, retired District of Columbia Superior Court Senior Judge Fred Ugast, who had presided over Gates's trial, granted Gates a certificate of actual innocence.
In 2011, Gates filed a federal civil rights lawsuit seeking damages for his wrongful conviction. In November 2015, a jury found that two District of Columbia homicide detectives withheld evidence and fabricated all or part of the confession the informant claimed that Gates had made. A day after the verdict, the District of Columbia agreed to settle the lawsuit for $16.65 million, the largest civil rights award in District history.
– Maurice Possley