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Thursday, April 10, 2014
Man Wrongfully Convicted in 1989 Brooklyn Murder Is Set Free
Jonathan Fleming embracing one of his lawyers, Anthony Mayol, after his murder conviction was overturned on Tuesday.
A timeworn phone bill from a Quality Inn in Orlando, Fla., turned out to be one of the most valuable pieces of paper Jonathan Fleming owns.
Mr. Fleming, 51, who was serving the 25th year of a sentence of 25 years to life after being found guilty of a 1989 murder in Brooklyn, was released on Tuesday after new evidence was uncovered in his case. The evidence included a receipt that established he was in Florida less than five hours before the killing.
He stood quietly, his hands clasped behind his back, as his lawyers detailed new evidence that they and the Brooklyn district attorney’s office discovered. “Had it been available at the trial, the likely outcome of the trial would have been different,” an assistant district attorney, Mark Hale, told the judge, Matthew J. D’Emic, as he explained that his office supported Mr. Fleming’s release.
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Kenneth P. Thompson, the new Brooklyn district attorney, inherited an office accused of wrongly prosecuting many people.
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Louis Scarcella, the retired Brooklyn detective whose cases are under review.
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It was only when the judge said that the motion was granted and the indictment dismissed that Mr. Fleming’s composure wavered, his shoulders shaking and his eyes tearing up as he hugged his lawyers. Cries of “Thank you, God,” “Our prayers have been answered now” and “You’re a free man” came from his friends and family in the courtroom.
Mr. Fleming’s is one of dozens of wrongful-conviction cases that the new Brooklyn district attorney, Kenneth P. Thompson, inherited when he took office this year. The office is also combing through 50 cases that a detective, Louis Scarcella, who has been accused of using illegal tactics to frame suspects, was involved in; Mr. Scarcella was not part of Mr. Fleming’s case.
Mr. Thompson’s predecessor, Charles J. Hynes, created the Conviction Integrity Unit to look into questionable cases after criticism over wrongful convictions. Mr. Thompson, who campaigned in part on reforming the district attorney’s office, has so far gained the release of two prisoners who were serving time for murder after new evidence was obtained, and prisoners’ advocates are pushing him to move quickly on other cases. The office on Monday appointed Ronald S. Sullivan Jr., a Harvard Law School professor, to lead the unit, now called the Conviction Review Unit, and added three outside lawyers to help evaluate cases.
Mr. Fleming was convicted of second-degree murder in the killing of Darryl Alston, a rival drug dealer, on Aug. 15, 1989, at the Williamsburg Houses.
His alibi was simple: He was in Orlando at the time of the shooting, on a family trip to Walt Disney World.
During the trial, Mr. Fleming’s lawyers gave evidence showing that he was in Orlando around the time of the murder — plane tickets and video footage and vacation photos from family members. But prosecutors argued he could have returned to Brooklyn and shot Mr. Alston, producing a list with 53 possible flights he could have taken, according to a document prepared by Mr. Fleming’s lawyers, Taylor Koss and Anthony Mayol. And they cast doubt on the testimony from Mr. Fleming’s family members about his whereabouts.
A woman who said she was an eyewitness, Jacqueline Belardo, identified Mr. Fleming as the killer. Though she recanted what she said before sentencing, saying she had identified Mr. Fleming in exchange for a dismissal of grand larceny charges against her, the prosecution contended that Ms. Belardo was lying, according to the document.
In June 2013, the Conviction Integrity Unit began examining Mr. Fleming’s conviction after investigators and lawyers for Mr. Fleming brought it the new witness statements. In November, the unit turned over to the defense police logs that it had come across during its look at the case. The logs showed that Ms. Belardo, the purported eyewitness, had been brought in after being found in a stolen van and charged with grand larceny; after several hours of questioning, she pointed to Mr. Fleming as the killer, according to the defense document. A little over an hour later, her charges were voided and she was released. Ms. Belardo still stands by her recantation, according to the document.
The Conviction Integrity Unit also turned over the phone receipt. At 9:27 p.m. on Aug. 14, 1989, Mr. Fleming had paid a phone bill at the Orlando Quality Inn, making it unlikely he could have made it back to Brooklyn in time for the 2:15 a.m. shooting on Aug. 15. But the receipt was not a part of trial evidence. Mr. Koss said at Tuesday’s hearing that Mr. Fleming had asked about the receipt at the time of the trial and that a detective at the trial was questioned about the receipt and said he did not recall recovering it. Investigators found the receipt in the case file last year.
Other new evidence was a report from the Orlando Police Department, which had looked into Mr. Fleming’s alibi at the New York Police Department’s request. The Orlando police interviewed Quality Inn staff members who remembered Mr. Fleming; at the trial, the only witnesses to vouch for Mr. Fleming’s presence in Orlando were family members.
It was the new documentary evidence that was most compelling in this case, said Mr. Hale, the assistant district attorney, specifically the receipt and the Orlando Police Department’s letter. “We, in looking at the evidence, do not believe we have the present ability to retry the defendant,” nor will the office be able to retry him in the future, Mr. Hale said.
As part of their investigation, the defense and prosecutors then reinterviewed witnesses to the murder, and their accounts pointed to a different suspect.
“They’re bringing my baby home,” said Mr. Fleming’s mother, Patricia Fleming, 72. An innocent man “did all this time,” she said. “It was hard on him and it was hard on me.”