The year was 1964 when a historic piece of legislation ended decades of exclusion, exploitation and discrimination based on color, sex and national origin in the United States.
For Paul Gatling, however, it was the beginning of a 52-year-old ordeal.
The now 81-year-old was arrested in 1963 for allegedly killing a well-known Brooklyn-based artist, Lawrence Rothbort, at his home in Crown Heights.
Rothbort’s then-pregnant wife Marlene told the police that the family had just finished dinner when a "Negro" entered their first-floor apartment holding a shotgun and demanding money. Even though she couldn’t identify Gatling during an initial lineup, she later changed her mind.
In addition, a man named Grady Reaves, reportedly a felon, told cops he saw Gatling on the block shortly after the shooting.
That’s when Gatling, then 29, realized it was all over for him.
“The cops told me they would make sure I was convicted and the lawyers said they were going to execute me,” he recently told NBC News. “I was a young black man. With the white, pregnant wife in front of an all-white jury pointing me out, it was over.”
Gatling was sentenced to 30 years to life in October 1964, of which he served 10 years in prison. In 1974, he was released after a lawyer from the Legal Aid Society, Malvina Nathanson, appealed to then-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller.
However, Gatling’s conviction was never vacated.
A few years ago, when Gatling came across Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson’s Conviction Review Unit, he forwarded his case to him.
"Paul Gatling repeatedly proclaimed his innocence even as he faced the death penalty back in the '60s," Thompson said in a statement released 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.”
After Gatling’s rights were restored to him, following his exoneration, he said there’s one thing he wants to first.
"I want my name cleared," Gatling told NBC News before Thompson made it official. "Most of all, I just want to vote before I die."
Gatling’s big regret is that he couldn't vote for President Barack Obama.
"That's a big deal for me," he told NBC. "I couldn't vote for the first black president."
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