Man wrongfully convicted of murdering Brooklyn artist exonerated 52 years later

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NEW YORK — For more than half a century, Paul Gatling, 81, had been convicted of a murder he did not commit.  That changed on Monday afternoon, when his record was finally wiped clean.  It was a long time coming, and when it did come, it was the end of a remarkable odyssey of injustice.

Around 2:15 Monday afternoon, Gatling walked into the Brooklyn Supreme Courthouse proudly but quietly to have a hearing he'd been waiting for for 53 years.

That's how long he's professed his innocence in the 1963  shooting death of artist Lawrence Rothbort.  Rothbort's wife was an eyewitness to the crime, but she didn't pick Gatling out of a lineup, and she went for well over a month unable to identify any possible killer of her husband.

For his part, Gatling, a combat veteran of the Korean War who'd come back to the States to a steady, solid job, had a solid alibi. He'd been paying his rent at the time of the murder, and his landlord confirmed it.

However, the murder victim's widow was nine months pregnant at the time, and was thought by Gatling's trial attorney to be an unimpeachable witness.  Gatling was counseled to plead guilty to second degree murder in order to avoid the electric chair.

What had also made his case seem impossible to win at the time was the presence of another witness, who had claimed he'd seen Gatling at the scene of the crime shortly free it had taken place.  It turned out that that other witness was a cooperating witness for the district attorney at the time, and that the witness had lied in court under oath before.  He had clearly done that again in Gatling's case.

For that reason, Mark Hale, an assistant district attorney, made a very public mea culpa in open court on Monday.  "The people and the district attorney humbly and profoundly apologize," Hale said.

Meanwhile, Gatling had gotten a new lawyer since his trial, but the word "new" is relative.  Melvina Nathanson was a fresh, new Legal Aid attorney in 1972, when her research on Gatling's case led her to write a report that she sent to the office of then-governor Nelson Rockefeller in 1973.

The next year, as one of his last acts as governor, Rockefeller commuted Gatling's 30 years-to-life sentence.  That allowed Gatling to go free, but he was never able to get the murder conviction wiped from his record.

Until Monday, that is.  In court, he stood up and made a 45 second statement.

"This has stopped me from voting on every level," Gatling told the judge, referring to the fact that convicted felons lose the right to vote. "I have grandchildren and great grandchildren.  They don't understand why Papa don't vote."

"I don't want to take up the court's time," continued he octogenarian who'd waited over a half century to make his statement, "but this is something that's been done to me that should not be done to any human being."

With that, the judge vacated the murder conviction.

At a news conference after the hearing, Gatling thanked Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson, who's now overseen twenty exonerations in two years.

Then, Gatling, who moved to Virginia after his release from prison, said, " I left New York because I felt I couldn't say to you, 'I'm innocent,' and you would understand.  And I was walking around like under a cloud.  Today, that's over. "