Paul Gatling, an 81-year-old retiree, was arrested in the fall of 1963 in connection with the murder of a well-known painter inside of a Crown Heights apartment. Gatling eventually pleaded guilty on his attorney's suggestion, in order to avoid the death penalty. Now the Brooklyn District Attorney's office is vacating Gatling's conviction, following an investigation by the office's Conviction Review Unit.
"Paul Gatling repeatedly proclaimed his innocence even as he faced the death penalty back in the 60s," said Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson in a statement this week. "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, [which] he once called home.”
According to the NY Times, Gatling, who now lives in Virginia, read about the DA's Conviction Review Unit a few years back in a local newspaper, and sent a letter to Thompson's office asking for review of his case.
The man Gatling was convicted of shooting to death was Lawrence Rothbort, a self-taught expressionist painter born and raised in Brooklyn, who critics compared to Vincent Van Gogh.
NYPD officers discovered Rothbort's body inside 1480 Bedford Avenue in Crown Heights, near the corner of Sterling Place, on the night of October 15, 1963. Rothbort, then 43, was inside the kitchen, face down in a pool of blood with a gunshot wound to the chest.
The DA's office today released an overview of the aftermath of Rothbort's death, detailing the allegations leveraged against Gatling. Rothbort's wife Marlene, then pregnant, was allegedly in the kitchen with their two children when the fatal shot was fired. She later told the police that the family had just finished dinner when a "Negro" man walked into the first-floor apartment holding a shotgun and demanded money. Rothbort allegedly refused, and the suspect fired one shot into his chest. A witness said they saw the suspect walk out of the building and along Bedford Avenue.
The police didn't recover a weapon from the scene, nor did they identify any suspects in the month following the murder. They did, however, generate a sketch based off of Marlene's description. Then, in mid-November, they questioned a neighbor named Grady Reaves—a known felon himself, according to the NY Times. Reaves told investigators that he had seen Gatling near the Rothbort's apartment on the night of the shooting.
According to the DA's office, Gatling's eventual conviction was based primarily on testimony from Reaves and Marlene. The latter, who was nine months pregnant when she testified in court, failed to identify Gatling in a lineup before the trial.
Gatling pled guilty to second-degree murder at his attorney's suggestion, mid-trial, staring down the electric chair. He was sentenced to 30-years-to-life in October 1964. The Legal Aid Society subsequently picked up Gatling's case, and then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller commuted his sentence in 1974. But the innocent man's murder conviction still stood, after nine years in prison.
The DA's investigation into Gatling's conviction primarily involved archival digging, according to the NY Times, since the majority of the witnesses are no longer living. Investigators determined that Gatling hadn't been granted an attorney during questioning, and uncovered evidence pertaining to a possible affair, much of which was never shared with the defense. From the paper:
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.
The Brooklyn DA's Conviction Review Unit has vacated 20 convictions to date, and upheld 38. There are about 100 cases currently pending.
— Sonia Rincon (@SoniaRincon) May 2, 2016