'Murderer forced to confess' cleared after 52 years

On Monday, Paul Gatling was exonerated after spending 52 years after pleading guilty to a Brooklyn murder to escape a possible death penalty.

The 81-year-old was jailed from 1964 to 1973 for the 1963 shooting death of Lawrence Rothbort in his Crown Heights home.

In doing so, the judge apologised and Mr Gatling hugged his crying ex-wife and a friend.

"There's a lot of water gone under the bridge, but the bridge is still standing," Gatling said after the court proceeding.

On Monday, the Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson formally cleared him of a previous conviction, after Gatling's insistence that he was innocent led the Conviction Review Unit to look into his case.

"We're here because Mr. Gatling would not let go of his demand to be deemed innocent," Attorney Thompson told the judge.

"Paul Gatling repeatedly proclaimed his innocence even as he faced the death penalty back in the 60s."

"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, where he once called home."

The retired landscaper entered the court with a walking stick and declared he came from a civic-minded family and "this has stopped me from voting on every level."

He hasn't had the opportunity to exercise that constitutional right and being able to vote has been a long dream of his – and come this November, he may able to fulfill it.

His wife told police that a 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 at the time, was questioned after another man said he saw him in the area, providing the prosecution with the main piece of evidence that convicted him.

That man was a witness in other cases and was known to have committed perjury, Thompson said, adding that other circumstances also led to Gatling not receiving a fair trial.

Rothbort's wife, nine-months pregnant at the time of the trial, said Gatling was the man who had killed her husband, despite not being able to identify him in a line up previously.

No physical evidence tied him to the crime and defence attorneys were never given some police reports, including a description of the suspect as several years younger than Gatling.

As the trial was underway, 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 then-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller at the behest of the Legal Aid Society and he was released in January 1974.

His exoneration marks the 20th time in two years that the prosecutor's Conviction Review Unit has helped clear defendants found guilty in Brooklyn of crimes they did not commit, Thompson said.

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