A Virginia man who spent nearly a decade in prison after pleading guilty to a New York City slaying over 50 years ago was cleared of the crime Monday.
At the request of a prosecutor, a judge vacated the conviction of 81-year-old Paul Gatling for the 1963 shooting death of Lawrence Rothbort. 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.
The prosecutor asked that the conviction be vacated after Gatling, a 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 said. "He was pressured to plead guilty and, sadly, did not receive a fair trial."
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 Oct. 15, 1963 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.
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, according to The New York Times, which first reported the story.