A man who spent almost a quarter of a century behind bars for murder was freed in New York on Tuesday and cleared of a killing that happened when he was far away on a Disney World vacation.
Jonathan Fleming, 51, left a Brooklyn court in tears as a free man, hugging his lawyers as relatives cheered: “Thank you, God!” after a judge dismissed the case.
A key eyewitness had recanted, newly found witnesses implicated someone else and prosecutors’ review of their own files turned up documents supporting Fleming’s alibi.
“After 25 years, come hug your mother,” Patricia Fleming said, and her only child did.
“I feel wonderful,” he said afterward. “I’ve always had faith. I knew that this day would come someday.”
The exoneration, first reported by the New York Daily News, comes amid scrutiny of Brooklyn prosecutors’ process for reviewing questionable convictions — scrutiny that comes partly from the new district attorney, Kenneth Thompson.
Thompson said in a statement that after a months-long review, he decided to drop the case against Fleming because of “key alibi facts that place Fleming in Florida at the time of the murder.”
From the start, Fleming told authorities he had been in Orlando when a friend, Darryl “Black” Rush, was shot to death in Brooklyn early on Aug. 15, 1989.
Fleming had plane tickets, videos and postcards from his trip, said his lawyers, Anthony Mayol and Taylor Koss. However, prosecutors at the time suggested he could have made a quick round-trip plane jaunt to be in New York and a woman testified that she had seen him shoot Rush. Fleming was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
The eyewitness recanted her testimony soon after Fleming’s 1990 conviction, saying she had lied so police would cut her loose for an unrelated arrest, but Fleming lost his appeals.
The defense asked the prosecutors’ office to review the case last year.
Defense investigators found previously untapped witnesses who implicated someone else as the gunman, the attorneys said.
Prosecutors’ own review produced a hotel receipt that Fleming paid in Florida about five hours before the shooting — a document that police evidently had found in Fleming’s pocket when they arrested him. Prosecutors also found an October 1989 Orlando police letter to New York detectives, saying some employees at an Orlando hotel had told investigators they remembered Fleming.
Neither the receipt nor the police letter had been provided to Fleming’s initial defense lawyer.
Patricia Fleming, 71, was with her son in Orlando at the time of the crime and testified at his trial.
“I knew he didn’t do it, because I was there,” she said. “When they gave my son 25-to-life, I thought I would die in that courtroom.”
Thompson took office in January, after unseating longtime District Attorney Charles “Joe” Hynes with a campaign that focused partly on questionable convictions on Hynes’ watch.
On Tuesday, Jonathan Fleming left court with an arm around his mother’s shoulders and the process of rebuilding his life ahead of him.
Asked about his plans, he said: “I’m going to go eat dinner with my mother and my family, and I’m going to live the rest of my life.”