Man Wrongfully Convicted of Murder Awaits His Exoneration, 52 Years Later

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A couple of years ago, Paul Gatling, a retired landscaper in Virginia, happened to see an article in a local newspaper about the Brooklyn district attorney’s efforts to identify wrongful convictions.

Mr. Gatling, then 79, had himself been wrongfully convicted in 1964 of murdering an artist in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. He spent nine years in prison for the crime until, with the help of the Legal Aid Society, his sentence was commuted by Nelson A. Rockefeller, New York’s governor at the time. Even with the reduction in his sentence and his eventual parole, Mr. Gatling remained, officially, a convicted murderer.

Intrigued by the possibility that he might finally be able to clear his name, Mr. Gatling called the lawyer who had handled his pardon and was, some 40 years later, still working for Legal Aid. The lawyer suggested that he write to the district attorney’s office to ask if its new Conviction Review Unit would re-examine his case. Mr. Gatling did, and his request began an inquiry that led investigators into a tale of legal malfeasance, one that is to culminate on Monday in Mr. Gatling’s formal exoneration.
“I wanted to be done with all of this,” Mr. Gatling, now 81, said in a telephone interview last week. “I was still angry about having to spend that time for something I didn’t do.”

Mr. Gatling’s exoneration will mark the 20th time in the last two years that the Conviction Review Unit has helped to clear defendants found guilty in Brooklyn of crimes they did not commit. Charles J. Hynes began a similar effort as the district attorney in 2011, but when his successor, Ken Thompson took office in 2014, he renamed the unit and put his support squarely behind it. The review unit initially focused on cases connected to one detective, Louis Scarcella, whose alleged misconduct has called into question nearly 50 murder cases. But as news of the unit’s work has spread, its reach has widened to include cases like Mr. Gatling’s.
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Mr. Gatling’s ordeal began on Oct. 15, 1963, when a black man armed with a shotgun burst into the home of Lawrence Rothbort, a white artist who lived on Bedford Avenue with his wife, Marlene, and their two children, a 6-year-old boy and an infant daughter. According to police reports and, later, testimony at trial, the man demanded money from Mr. Rothbort. When the artist refused, the gunman shot him in the chest.

During the investigation, suspicion first fell on Mr. Gatling when one of the Rothborts’ neighbors, a felon named Grady Reaves, informed the police that he had seen Mr. Gatling in the area just minutes after the shooting. When Mr. Gatling was interviewed by detectives in the 80th Precinct (which was later absorbed by another precinct), he told them that he had been paying his rent at the time — a fact that his landlord eventually confirmed. A few hours into the interview, Mr. Gatling’s lawyer called the station house, but the detectives told him that he could not see his client until the questioning was complete, court papers say.

That same evening, Mr. Gatling, who was 6-foot-1, was placed in a lineup with three notably shorter men. Mrs. Rothbort was called in to identify him, but did not pick him out, even though, court papers say, the detectives directed her to focus on “the tall one.”

A few nights later, Mrs. Rothbort went back to the station house as Mr. Gatling was again being interviewed. This time, after seeing him facing questions, she told detectives that he was the man who had killed her husband.

Largely on the basis of this identification, Mr. Gatling’s lawyers persuaded him to plead guilty — in the middle of his trial. After all, he faced the possibility of being sent to the electric chair. So Mr. Gatling pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 30 years to life in prison.

Within a week, however, he had asked the judge to withdraw his plea, but the petition was denied. Over the next few years, there were more petitions, all of them turned down. Finally, in 1973, Malvina Nathanson, a young Legal Aid lawyer, sent a report on Mr. Gatling’s case to Governor Rockefeller. The following year, he commuted Mr. Gatling’s sentence; he was eventually released on parole.

Forty years later, when the Conviction Review Unit plunged into the Gatling case, most of the witnesses were dead. Investigators had to dig up case files from the city archives and track down copies of police reports on microfiche at 1 Police Plaza.

They found that Mr. Gatling had been denied many of the legal protections that defendants take for granted these days — the presence of a lawyer during questioning, for example. Perhaps more important, they also found an alternate theory of the case that the jury never heard.

It turned out that one of the Rothborts’ neighbors had told the police that their marriage was “not a healthy situation” and that the couple often argued — sometimes violently in the middle of the night. Mrs. Rothbort, moreover, told detectives that she was having an affair with a musician who was living as a boarder in their home. When the boarder, Leon Tolbert, was interviewed, he explained to the police that he had recently heard Mrs. Rothbort tell her husband that she would kill him if he ever hit her again.

Much of this information was not provided to the defense, and that was cause enough for the district attorney’s office to request a reversal of Mr. Gatling’s conviction. On Monday, he is expected to appear in court for the reversal with, among others, Ms. Nathanson, his lawyer.

“It’s restored my enthusiasm,” Ms. Nathanson said last week. She added, struggling for words, “It’s been a lot of years.”

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