Exonerated after 52 years, Paul Gatling is excited to vote

Paul Gatling will be able to vote this November after his name was cleared from 1964 murder conviction that he was falsely accused of. His only regret is that he didn't have a chance to vote for a black president.

Mark Lennihan/AP
Paul Gatling and his attorney Malvina Nathanson walk hand-in-hand as they leave Brooklyn Supreme Court after a judge exonerated him Monday in New York. The Virginia man spent nearly a decade in prison after being wrongly convicted of murdering an artist in Brooklyn in 1963.

For 81-year-old Paul Gatling, being able to vote has been a long dream of his – and come this November, he may able to fulfill it.

Due to a criminal record, Mr. Gatling hasn't had the opportunity to exercise that constitutional right. On Monday, however, the Brooklyn District Attorney formally cleared him of a previous conviction, after Gatling's insistence that he was innocent led the Conviction Review Unit to look into his case. 

The exoneration is the latest in a list of growing cases in which defendants found guilty of crimes in Brooklyn have been cleared after the Conviction Review Unit established discrepancies with the investigation and trial processes.

Gatling, who is from Virginia, spent 10 years in jail after being convicted of shooting Lawrence Rothbort in his Brooklyn home in 1963. He has always maintained his innocence, and not given up a quest to clear his name. The retired landscaper asked the prosecutor's Conviction Review Unit to look into his case. 

"Paul Gatling repeatedly proclaimed his innocence even as he faced the death penalty back in the 60s," Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson told the judge. "He was pressured to plead guilty and, sadly, did not receive a fair trial. Today, 52 years later, he will be given back his good name and receive justice here in Brooklyn, where he once called home."

Mr. Rothbort's wife provided a description of the shooter, and said that he had demanded money from her husband, and shot him when he refused. The description did not help the police identify any suspects.

But another witness told the police that he had seen Gatling in the area the day of the shooting, providing the prosecution with the main piece of evidence that convicted him. Ms. Rothbart later told police that Gatling had killed her husband, although she had failed to identify him during a line-up.   

Afraid that he would face the death penalty, Gatling's attorney and family pressed him to plead guilty to second-degree murder. He agreed, and was sentenced to 30 years in jail. He was released after 10 years, however, in 1974, after then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller reduced his sentence at the behest of the Legal Aid Society.

The prosecutor's Conviction Review Unit found that prosecution had withheld some police reports from the defense attorneys, including a report describing the suspect as having been several years younger than Gatling. No physical evidence found tied Gatling to the crime. The fact that the witness who identified Gatling had been convicted of perjury was not taken into account, either, DA Thompson said.

"I just want to vote before I die," Gatling told NBC on Monday. "That's a big deal for me. I couldn't vote for the first black president." 

This report contains materials from the Associated Press.

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