Paul Gatling served nine years in prison and lived more than 50 years with a conviction for a 1963 Brooklyn murder he did not commit. But in a Brooklyn courtroom Monday, the Brooklyn district attorney officially exonerated the now 81-year-old Gatling.
Paul Gatling was accused of murdering Brooklyn artist Lawrence Rothbort — an expressionist artist who often painted New York scenes and gained more recognition posthumously — during an apparent botched armed robbery in 1963. Gatling had an alibi (he said he was paying his rent, a fact verified by his landlord, reports the New York Times), and the victim’s wife identified Gatling as the killer only after she saw him being interrogated by cops. Gatling ended up pleading guilty to the murder mid-trial to avoid the death penalty. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison, and though he almost immediately tried to withdraw his plea, the judge denied that request. Finally, a Legal Aid attorney took up his case, and Gatling had his sentence commuted after serving nine years in prison.
Commutation reduces or cuts a sentence short, but doesn’t clear someone of his or her crimes. Gatling, a Korean War vet, moved to Virginia for a fresh start, says NBC News, and worked as a landscaper until his retirement. But he remained a convicted killer. Then Gatling read about Brooklyn’s Convictions Review Unit, set up to investigate just these kinds of cases. He ended up contacting Legal Aid again — and got the same attorney who helped free him from prison decades ago.
Most of they key witnesses are dead, but the Brooklyn D.A. uncovered enough evidence to determine that Gatling never got a fair trail, reports DNAinfo — including details never disclosed to the defense, such as that the victim’s wife had been overheard threatening to kill her husband. “These look like charges that should never have even been brought,” a Brooklyn prosecutor said in court Monday. “He was subject to some of the worst violations of due process that we have ever seen. For that reason, the people of the district attorney’s office humbly and profoundly apologize.”
Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson has invested heavily in his office’s Convictions Review Unit, a branch he rebranded — it had been called the Conviction Integrity Unit under his predecessor, and focused on convictions tied to one insanely dirty Brooklyn cop — after taking office in 2014. Right now about 100 potential wrongful cases are pending review. Gatling’s conviction is the unit’s 20th overturned or nullified, so far.