It was October 1963. John F. Kennedy was President. Singer Sam Cooke was arrested for trying to register at a “whites only” motel in Louisiana. A first class stamp cost 4¢. And Lawrence Rothbort was shot to death in his Brooklyn apartment.
Shortly after the Rothbort shooting, a 29-year old man, Paul Gatling, was questioned about the killing, then arrested and charged with first degree murder. He was facing the death penalty. A year later, Gatling pleaded guilty to second degree murder, and was sentenced to 30 years to life in prison. Gatling said he entered the guilty plea because of pressure from his family, to avoid the possibility of being executed.
Over time, questions began to surface about Gatling’s guilt. In 1074, after a decade in prison, his sentence was commuted by then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller, based largely on reported police and prosecutorial misconduct. But that fell short of actual exoneration.
In order to understand what Gatling was up against, it is helpful to review a few items from his case:
- Gatling was initially questioned simply because another man said he saw Gatling in the vicinity of the murder. That witness had testified in other cases, and was a known perjurer.
- Rothbort’s wife was unable to identify Gatling in a line-up, yet she still claimed that he was the murderer.
- Some of the police reports were never provided to the defense. One of those reports, for example, identified the killer as a man years younger than Gatling.
They say the wheels of justice turn slowly, and this is a prime example of that phenomenon. Earlier this month, more than 50 years after he was convicted, a Brooklyn judge vacated the conviction of Gatling, who is now 81 years old, and dismissed the indictment against him.
The exoneration of Mr. Gatling marks the 20th time in the last two years that convicted defendants have been cleared with the help of the Conviction Review Unit.
George Vomvolakis Law Offices
275 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10016