More than 50 years after a wrongful conviction in a New York City killing and more than 40 years after being released from prison, a Virginia man is returning to a courtroom to be fully exonerated.
Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson said Monday his office would be moving to vacate the conviction of 81-year-old Paul Gatling, who pleaded guilty in 1964 in the shooting death of Lawrence Rothbort in October 1963.
“Paul Gatling repeatedly proclaimed his innocence even as he faced the death penalty back in the 60s,” Thompson said. “He was pressured to plead guilty and, sadly, did not receive a fair trial.”
The move comes after the retired landscaper asked the office’s conviction review unit to look into his case.
Rothbort was shot in his Brooklyn home. His wife told police that a black 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 years old 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, and that wasn’t the only thing that led to Gatling not receiving a fair trial, Thompson said.
Rothbort’s wife said Gatling was the man who had killed her husband, despite not being able to identify him in a line-up before that. There was no physical evidence tying 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 Gov. Nelson Rockefeller at the behest of the Legal Aid Society and he was released in January 1974.
The New York Times first reported the story.