Jonathan Fleming, 51, spent nearly half of his life behind bars for a 1989 murder he didn’t commit. As he adjusts to a new world and revels in his new life, Fleming takes the Daily News inside of his struggle against injustice.
EXCLUSIVE: Wrongly convicted Brooklyn man released after 24 years in prison opens up about ordeal as he celebrates freedom
A hush fell over the courtroom.
It was a sultry day in July 1990, and accused murderer Jonathan Fleming was about to learn his fate.
The 27-year-old Brooklyn man stood accused of gunning down Darryl Rush, 22, at the Williamsburg Houses in Aug. 1989.
Fleming did fit the profile of a murderer. He was an ex-con and one-time crack dealer with a long rap sheet
But seated behind the defense table in a gray silk suit and matching gator shoes, Fleming was certain the jury would find him innocent. On the night of the slaying, he was in Florida on a family trip to Disney World.
How could he be convicted of a crime that took place more than 1,000 miles away?
The jury foreman stood up and prepared to read the verdict. Fleming took a deep breath.
Fleming, a father of three, sat in disbelief.
His nightmare deepened four months later when a judge sentenced him to 25 years to life — even after a key prosecution witness recanted her testimony.
From behind bars at Downstate Correctional Facility in Fishkill, a shellshocked Fleming pondered his fate.
“I said to myself, ‘This can’t be true.’ I’m thinking it has to be a dream,” he told the Daily News. “But every morning that I woke up, I realized day after day that it wasn’t because I still remained in that cell.”
“I just kept thinking to myself, ‘How could I be convicted of a crime I didn’t commit?'”
That same question would haunt Fleming for the next 24 years.
Fleming’s near-quarter century behind bars ended last week when a judge granted a motion by the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office to dismiss his charges.
Investigators, after launching a probe of the case last year, found two documents buried in Fleming’s court file that proved his innocence.
One was a phone receipt from an Orlando hotel showing he was there just hours before the murder. The other was a local police report that quoted hotel staffers who remembered seeing him.
Since his Tuesday release, Fleming has focused on adapting to life in a city that barely resembles the one he knew when he entered the prison system in 1990.
But in an interview with The News — his most extensive to date — Fleming agreed to look back, detailing the agony he suffered behind bars, locked up year after year for a crime he didn’t commit.
From the start, Fleming devoted himself to trying to secure his freedom.
He spent hours at the law library inside Elmira Correctional Facility, his second prison, studying murder cases that had been overturned.
“I knew I was innocent,” Fleming said. “I kept faith. I kept faith in God. I said he’s going to get me through this, and I will prove my innocence.”
Fleming became convinced that the key was finding the couple of witnesses who wrongly testified that he was in New York at the time of the murder — and getting them to agree to provide sworn statements admitting they lied.
But that required hiring private investigators, and their services didn’t come cheap.
Fleming did manage to scrounge up some cash with the help of family members, but the investigators he hired didn’t produce anything.
The bad news kept coming in those early years: One after another, his appeals were denied.
Fleming tried to distract himself by working out and reading books, but he started getting caught up in prison life.
There were jail yard fights. Stints in solitary confinement. Transfers to supermax prisons such as the notorious Attica Correctional Facility.
“I remember moments where I’d be sitting there and I’d be saying to myself, ‘I can’t believe I’m still here,'” Fleming said.
“When it first started, I said to myself, ‘If I have to do some time, I don’t see myself doing more than five years. Before you know it another five years went by and then another.
“There were times when I’d sit back and I thought about that — that I can’t believe I’m still in prison after all these years.”
One of Fleming’s darkest periods came in 1997 when he was locked up at the Southport Correctional Facility.
During a visit with his mother, she told him that his oldest son, 17-year-old Jonathan, was arrested for murder.
The irony was cruel: It was Jonathan who Fleming had taken to Disney World to celebrate his ninth birthday.
“That was a big blow to me,” Fleming said. “My whole system shut down. I couldn’t believe it. I felt that I failed my kids. I felt that I let him down, not being there with him. He’s still in prison today.”
Fleming was overcome by a different feeling of despair while locked up at Great Meadow Correctional Facility in Comstock in the fall of 2001.
He was watching TV when the show was interrupted and an image of the World Trade Center, smoke billowing from the north tower, flashed on the screen.
“Then when I seen the second plane hit and when I seen that building went down, I was in shock,” Fleming said.
“I started thinking about maybe somebody from my family could have been in the building, and I prayed for everybody.”
Fleming had long lost hope that he would ever be able to afford to hire private investigators.
But a family tragedy, with an unexpected benefit, turned his fortunes around.
The mother of his third son was severely injured after she got hit by a G train in Brooklyn in the mid-1990s.
She filed a suit against the city, and several years passed before it went to trial.
The woman was victorious in court but died a few years later.
Fleming’s son later vowed to help him pursue his bid for freedom once the money arrived. When that day came a couple years ago, Fleming’s son, Jamel, kept his promise.
Fleming hired two private investigators — Kim Anklin and Bob Rahn. They succeeded in getting the witnesses to sign affidavits admitting they had lied.
Lawyer Anthony Mayol, who had been advising Fleming for years, took on the case pro bono. He brought on a just-retired Brooklyn prosecutor named Taylor Koss, who had worked in the unit that reviewed questionable convictions.
It wasn’t long after the lawyers brought the case to the district attorney’s office that investigators uncovered the two exculpatory documents from Florida.
From behind bars at Wende Correctional Facility, Fleming was overwhelmed by all of the good news.
But he still had no idea if or when he would actually be declared a free man.
At about 2:30 p.m. on April 7, Fleming’s counselor showed up outside his cell unannounced.
“It’s over,” the counselor said, according to Fleming. She told him he had been exonerated and was slated to appear before a judge at 2 p.m. tomorrow.
“I actually sat on my bed and I cried,” Fleming said. “Tears of joy.”
The judge allowed Fleming to walk out of Brooklyn Supreme Court the following day.
But the now 51-year-old man, who had spent nearly half his life behind bars, quickly realized he was stepping into an uncertain future.
He had no money in his pockets and no idea where he would sleep that night.
His lawyers have been paying for him to stay at a hotel but even that has been an unsettling experience.
Fleming hasn’t been able to figure out how to use the coffee machine inside of his room.
One day this week, he had a similarly confusing experience at a Wendy’s. After going the bathroom, he couldn’t figure out how to flush the toilet and got spooked when it happened automatically.
But there have also been many high moments.
On Friday night, Fleming got the royal treatment at Barclays Center, where he got a behind-the-scenes tour before the start of the Nets game and then chatted up Katie Couric at courtside.
“That’s my girl now,” he joked afterward.
“Katie wanted my card,” he added. “I said, ‘I don’t have one.'”
There are so many things Fleming is hoping he gets the chance to do.
He wants to see Derek Jeter play baseball. He wants to spend quality time with his kids. And he even hopes to someday return to Disney World with his children and grandchildren.
“It was an experience that I really enjoyed with my kids,” Fleming said.
“Unfortunately, I came back from Disney World and I was charged with a crime that I didn’t commit.
“But I really want to go again because I want my (youngest) son to experience that.”
For anyone interested in donating money to help Fleming, you can do so here.