A decade after Gary Gathers and Keith Mitchell were convicted of murder, a Washington, D.C. appeals court reversed their convictions Wednesday, finding that prosecutors relied on false evidence at trial.
The Legal Times reported that the pair was first found guilty in 1994 of the fatal shooting of Wayne Ballard while he was sitting in a car at a traffic light. The District of Columbia Court of Appeals upheld the convictions in 1997. This time when the case was reviewed by the appeals court, a three-judge panel found that prosecutors repeatedly made use of false testimony from a police officer about the defendants' alleged motive.
At trial, the prosecution claimed that the men wanted to kill Ballard in an effort to prevent him from testifying against Gathers' brother in a murder case. A police officer testified that Ballard's name was mentioned as a cooperating witness in an early hearing in the brother's case. But this was not true. Ballard's name was never used. He was only referred to as "the driver." The trial prosecutor cited the officer's testimony as proof of a and the government repeated the false information in its brief during the first appeal.
"It is markedly disquieting to think that appellants should stand convicted on what is plainly false evidence highly prejudicial to the outcome where the government knew or should have known of the falsity, however belatedly this falsity may have come to the forefront," Senior Judge John Steadman wrote in the Oct. 23 opinion.
Lawyers for Gathers and Mitchell say they'll continue fighting for full exonerations. The Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project has been involved in Gathers' post-conviction defense since 2010.
Shawn Armbrust, executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, credited the U.S. attorney's office with making some progress over the years in being careful about mistakes during trial and in meeting its obligations to turn over favorable information to the defense. Still, she said the case was a reminder of the need to be vigilant.
"It just means that even when an office has the best of intentions, even when people have the best of intentions, sometimes people do the wrong thing," Armbrust said. "It's a sign we need procedures in place to make sure that doesn't continue to happen."