Jonathan Fleming served almost 25 years in a New York prison for a murder that took place while he was on vacation in Disney World 1100 miles away. He was freed on Tuesday and cleared of all charges.
New evidence and witnesses that turned up during a review of the case led both prosecutors and defense lawyers to ask a judge to dismiss the conviction of Fleming. According to defense attorneys Taylor Koss and Anthony Mayol, an eyewitness recanted her testimony, new witnesses stepped forward to point the finger at someone else and investigators discovered a phone bill from a Quality Inn in Orlando, Florida hotel that placed Fleming at the hotel five hours before the murder. The receipt had been placed into evidence by police after they discovered it on Fleming after his arrest, but was never introduced in court.
Fleming, 51, has always maintained that when the Aug. 15, 1989 shooting of rival drug dealer, Darryl “Black” Rush, occurred, he was in Orlando, Fla – miles away from Brooklyn – where the murder occurred. Fleming’s mother, Patricia Fleming, testified during his trial that she had been with her son in Florida at that time. Police had also interviewed hotel employees who vouched for the presence of Fleming during the time of the murder, but the information was not used during the trial.
Although he produced plane tickets, postcards and videos from his Florida vacation, prosecutors maintained that he could have been in New York at the time of the murder. They were also able to produce an eyewitness to testify that she had seen Fleming shoot Rush. At the time, investigators believed the murder to have been committed over an argument over money.
Not long after Fleming was convicted of the murder in 1990, the eyewitness, Jacqueline Belardo, claimed that her testimony had been false and that she had been pressured by prosecutors into identifying Fleming incorrectly so that prosecutors would dismiss pending charges against her for larceny. Although her admission came before Fleming’s sentencing hearing, the judge allowed the testimony to stand. Even so, Fleming’s appeals were all denied. It was not until last year, when defense lawyers asked the District Attorney to review the case that a closer look at the evidence was taken.
Upon hearing the news, Fleming broke down in tears and hugged his family and his attorneys. Relatives were heard exclaiming, “Thank you, God!” During an interview given after he had been freed, Fleming said that he knew that one day he would be exonerated. He reported his first steps would be to “eat dinner with my mother and my family, and I’m going to live the rest of my life.”
Brooklyn prosecutors have been under scrutiny of late for the process by which they review convictions. New York’s new District Attorney, Kenneth Thompson, has made it a point to focus on questionable convictions, using the former DA’s track record as campaign material. The prior DA, Charles “Joe” Hynes had implemented a special unit in charge of reviewing claims of wrongful conviction, but the process was thought to have lacked speed and was seen as defensive. Since taking office in January, Thompson has dismissed murder convictions of two men who had spent over 20 years in prison after new evidence raised doubts about their guilt.
By Jennifer Pfalz
The Celebrity Cafe
New York Times