NEW YORK — A Virginia man who spent almost 10 years in prison for a New York City slaying he was pressured to plead guilty to over 50 years ago was back in court on Monday — to hear a judge finally vacate the conviction.
At the request of a prosecutor, a judge exonerated 81-year-old Paul Gatling for the 1963 shooting death of Lawrence Rothbort in his Brooklyn home. In doing so, the judge apologized and Gatling hugged his crying ex-wife and a friend.
"There's a lot of water gone under the bridge, but the bridge is still standing," Gatling said after the court proceeding.
Gatling, a retired landscaper, had asked the prosecutor's Conviction Review Unit to look into his case, which led to the decision to ask for the exoneration over how the investigation had been handled and the fairness of the trial.
Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson said Gatling was a remarkable man. "We're here because Mr. Gatling would not let go of his demand to be deemed innocent."
Gatling, who walked with a cane as he entered the court, said he came from a civic-minded family and "this has stopped me from voting on every level."
Rothbort was shot in his Brooklyn home. His wife told police that a man with a shotgun had entered the apartment and demanded money, shooting her husband when he refused. She provided a description, but no suspect was found.
Thompson said Gatling, 29 at the time, was questioned after another man said he saw him in the area. That man was a witness in other cases and was known to have committed perjury, Thompson said, adding that other circumstances also led to Gatling not receiving a fair trial.
Rothbort's wife, nine-months pregnant at the time of the trial, said Gatling was the man who had killed her husband, despite not being able to identify him in a line up previously. No physical evidence tied him to the crime. Defense attorneys were never given some police reports, including a description of the suspect as several years younger than Gatling.
As the trial was underway, Gatling's attorney and family pressed him to plead guilty to second-degree murder, afraid that he would otherwise face the death penalty if convicted. He agreed, and was sentenced to 30 years to life in prison in October 1964. His sentence was commuted by then-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller at the behest of the Legal Aid Society and he was released in January 1974.
His exoneration marks the 20th time in two years that the prosecutor's Conviction Review Unit has helped clear defendants found guilty in Brooklyn of crimes they did not commit, Thompson said.
The New York Times first reported the story.