Brooklyn District Attorney Moves to Vacate 20th Wrongful Conviction

Monday, May 2, 2016


Brooklyn District Attorney Moves to Vacate 20th Wrongful Conviction

Will Seek Dismissal of Murder Conviction in Connection With
The 1963 Shooting Death of Artist in Crown Heights

Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson today announced that, as a result of a thorough investigation by his Conviction Review Unit, he will move to vacate a second-degree murder conviction against Paul Gatling, 81, who pleaded guilty during trial to escape a possible death penalty.

District Attorney Thompson said, “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.”

Today at 2:15 p.m., the District Attorney’s Office will move to vacate the conviction in the presence of Mr. Gatling before Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Dineen Riviezzo at 320 Jay Street, Part 14, 17th floor.

The District Attorney described the facts of the case as follows: On October 15, 1963 at approximately 8 p.m., police officers assigned to the now-former 80th Precinct responded to a report that a man had been murdered inside of his home, located at 1480 Bedford Avenue in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. The officers discovered the victim, Lawrence Rothbort, 43, a local painter and sculptor, lying face down in a pool of blood. He died of a gunshot wound to the chest.

The victim’s pregnant wife, Marlene, and their two children were present in the kitchen with Mr. Rothbort at the time of the shooting.  Mrs. Rothbort informed the officers that her family had just finished dinner when a “Negro” man holding a shotgun walked into their first floor art gallery/apartment and demanded money. The victim refused and was shot once in the chest. An eyewitness observed the intruder walk out of the building and continue down Bedford Avenue. Mrs. Rothbort provided her description of the intruder to a police sketch artist, and the police canvassed the area for a month, but could never recover the murder weapon or find possible suspects.

On November 15, 1963, detectives questioned Paul Gatling, 29, after questioning Grady Reaves over the course of several days. Reaves told police that he saw Gatling in the vicinity of the murder at the time of the shooting.

Gatling’s conviction relied heavily on the eyewitness testimony of Reaves and Mrs. Rothbort. However, Reaves had been a cooperating witness in multiple cases and is known to have committed perjury at least once. Reaves testified that on the night in question he and a companion, Joseph Hardy, were outside  his home when he heard what sounded like a car backfire, and claims he saw the defendant crossing an intersection on Bedford Avenue. Approximately 30 to 45 minutes later he said the defendant approached Hardy and himself inquiring about the Rothbort murder.

Mrs. Rothbort, who was nine months pregnant when she testified at trial, said that Gatling was the man who shot her husband, despite failing to identify him out of a line-up prior to trial. The victim’s 7-year-old son testified as an unsworn witness and said he could recognize the intruder, but that the man who killed his father was not in the courtroom. No physical evidence connected Gatling to the crime.

Gatling’s defense attorney and family urged him to plead guilty to second-degree murder towards the end of his trial to avoid the death penalty, and fearing the jury sympathized with the pregnant widow. After getting assurances from his attorneys and family that they would continue to look for the real killer, the defendant pleaded guilty to escape death row. He was sentenced to 30 years to life in prison in October 1964 after a hearing on a motion to withdraw his plea was denied.

In December 1973, on his last day in office, Governor Nelson Rockefeller commuted the defendant’s sentence at the urging of the Legal Aid Society, which had taken up his case. Gatling’s sentence was commuted and he was released from prison in January 1974.

After reviewing all of the facts and circumstances of the case, the CRU determined that the defendant was deprived of his right to a fair trial based on several issues, including Rosario and Brady violations. The defense was never provided with key police reports concerning the murder, including a description of the shooter as being around 17 to 20 years old, and was never informed of Reaves’ repeated use as a prosecution witness and prior perjury.

The CRU investigated the case after receiving a letter from Gatling. To date, the work of the Conviction Review Unit, which is led by Assistant District Attorney Mark Hale, has resulted in 20 convictions being vacated. In addition, the CRU has found that of the cases reviewed thus far, 38 convictions are just and will not be recommended to be vacated. Approximately 100 cases are pending review.