One hundred and ten years.
That’s how long some people thought it would take before a black woman even came close to the governorship in notoriously conservative Georgia. That’s also how long a judge sentenced an innocent man to serve in prison. One hundred ten years. A century and a decade.
How those two things are related is a fascinating tale of criminal injustice involving a professional athlete whose career was stolen after he spent more than a quarter of a century in prison for crimes he didn’t commit.
Leslie J. Abrams was a U.S. attorney until she was nominated by President Barack Obama for a federal judgeship in Georgia’s Middle District. Her sister, Stacey, could possibly upset the country’s political spectrum if Georgia voters select her as their governor in the upcoming November elections. But the story of Leslie’s fiance, Jimmie Gardner, is as extraordinary as that of his soon-to-be family members.
On May 16, 1987, a man broke into the home of 82-year-old Bethel Ferrell and sexually assaulted Ferrell’s 60-year old daughter, Wilma Galati, in the Kanawha City section of Charleston, W.Va. Two months later, Lillian Ruckman was sexually assaulted in her home in Kanawha City. Both women described their assaulters as a light-skinned black man with a narrow nose who was about 6 feet tall.
During the investigation, 23-year-old Jimmie Gardner was in Kanawha City playing for a minor league baseball team after being drafted by the Chicago Cubs. When the police began investigating the crime, they picked up all of the black baseball players on Gardner’s team, interrogated each one and fingerprinted them.
Two years later, in Miami, Gardner was arrested for gun possession and the police ran his fingerprints through the system. Despite the fact that Gardner is 6 feet 4, has a wide nose and is dark-skinned, Fred Zain, who examined blood for the West Virginia State Police, said that Gardner’s blood and fingerprints matched the blood and fingerprints that were found at the scene of the crime.
“I knew he was lying because I knew I hadn’t committed the crime,” Gardner told the Washington Post. During his trial, both victims said that Gardner was not the man who raped them. Both said that their attacker was lighter than Gardner. Ruckman even identified another man out of a police lineup as the man who assaulted her, but Zain said that his DNA evidence excluded that man.
Even though Gardner’s defense team was not allowed to view the lab results showing that the person who committed the rapes had a different blood type from Gardner’s, and even though the state’s stance was that the same person had committed both rapes, he was acquitted of the charges related to Ruckman (pdf) but convicted of rape (of Galati), assault (of Ferrell), battery, robbery and burglary because Zain said that Gardner was one of the few people on the planet who matched the DNA.
On Feb. 1, 1990, Jimmie Gardner was sentenced to serve between 33 and 110 years in prison.
Three years into his sentence, other agencies started questioning the reliability of Fred Zain’s DNA evidence. In 1993 the West Virginia Supreme Court found that Zain had a “long history of falsifying evidence in criminal prosecutions.” An investigation concluded that Zain’s “pattern and practice of misconduct completely undermined the validity and reliability of any forensic work he performed or reported” and that “as a matter of law, any testimonial or documentary evidence offered by Zain at any time in any criminal prosecution should be deemed invalid, unreliable, and inadmissible ... ”
Even though he knew of this discovery, Gardner would spend another 23 years in prison. He fought his conviction through numerous delays, even writing President Barack Obama, who could not pardon people convicted in state courts. Gardner was eventually released on bond on April 1, 2016, and on Sept. 7, 2016, all charges against him were dismissed.
After he was released, Gardner began working with Georgia schools, prisons and organizations as a motivational speaker and criminal-justice advocate. At one particular gathering of black judges, he met Leslie Gardner.
“I was the only male there. I went with a friend who asked me to mingle,” Gardner told the Daily Mail. “I’m very familiar with laws, and I got talking with Leslie; we were discussing for hours about judicial laws and different processes.”
The conversation flowered into a romantic relationship, and the two are engaged to be married later this year. Both are supportive of Stacey Abrams’ candidacy and were right by her side when she won the Georgia Democratic nomination for governor after Tuesday’s primary.
Meanwhile, Gardner, who earned three degrees while he was incarcerated, is in the process of converting a building that housed an old newspaper into the Gardner’s House, a facility that will house formerly incarcerated people, providing them with the opportunity to find housing and jobs.
Fred Zain never spent a day in jail.
But all’s well that ends well, right?
(Updated 3/3/22 with new details)