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81-Year-Old Man Exonerated of Murdering Crown Heights Artist After 52 Years

By Kathleen Culliton | May 2, 2016 2:35pm | Updated on May 2, 2016 3:32pm
 Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson's conviction review unit tossed out the case against Paul Gatling, 81.
Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson's conviction review unit tossed out the case against Paul Gatling, 81.
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DNAinfo/Kathleen Culliton

DOWNTOWN BROOKLYN — An 81-year-old man who pleaded guilty to the murder of a renowned Crown Heights artist to avoid the death penalty more than 50 years ago had his conviction vacated Monday, according to the Brooklyn District Attorney's Office.

Paul Gatling, 81, will have his conviction for the shooting death of Lawrence Rothbort overturned in Brooklyn Supreme Court by Justice Dineen Riviezzo on Monday afternoon.

"I can't tell you the pain I suffered," he told the court.

"I was put in a position of trying to defend my life,"  said Gatling, who fought in the Korean War. "I spent my life under a cloud. Today, that's over."

Prosecutor Mark Hale, of the Conviction Review Unit, apologized to Gatling for the mistakes of the District Attorney's Office in his address to the court and the two shook hands.

"These look like charges that should never have even been brought," Hale said. "He was subject to some of the worst violations of due process that we have ever seen. For that reason, the people of the district attorney's office humbly and profoundly apologize."

“He was pressured to plead guilty and, sadly, did not receive justice here in Brooklyn, where he once called home,” Thompson said in a statement. 

Rothbort, 43, an abstract painter who was known as the American Van Gogh, was shot dead in front of his wife and two children in his Crown Heights home on Oct. 15, 1963, prosecutors said. 

Rothbort’s wife Marlene told police an armed “negro” man had broken in, demanded money, and shot the artist when he refused to hand it over, according to the DA. 

One month later a police informant placed Gatling outside the Rothbort’s residence on Bedford Avenue on the day of the shooting.

Gatling was subsequently arrested and tried, despite the widow’s inability to pick him out of a lineup and the lack of physical evidence, the prosecutors said. 

Police also failed to inform Gatling's defense that Mrs. Rothbort confessed she had been having an affair and had been heard saying she would kill her husband if he ever hit her again, the New York Times reported on Sunday.  

Gatling’s lawyer convinced him to plead guilty to the murder and avoid the death penalty, even though Gatling persistently claimed his innocence.

He was sentenced to 30 years in prison for second-degree murder in 1964 under Kings County District Attorney Edward Silver.

Gatling's Legal Aid attorney Malvina Nathanson appealed to Kings District Attorney Aaron Koota to overturn the conviction in 1973, but he refused to do so.  

In 1974, Gov. Nelson Rockefeller agreed to commute Gatling's sentence to time-served and Gatling was free, but not exonerated.

Thompson's Conviction Review Unit investigated the case after receiving a letter from Gatling and determined he was deprived of a fair trial. 

This case is the 20th conviction to be vacated after an investigation by the unit so far. About 100 more cases are pending review. 

Before the justice vacated the conviction, she turned toward Gatling and apologized. 

"I'm so sorry for what has occurred to you," said Riviezzo. "I hope these proceedings bring you some peace."