Cleared of murder, man starts fresh 24 years later
By Jennifer Peltz Associated Press | 4/24/2014, 1:55 p.m.
NEW YORK (AP) — The day Jonathan Fleming was cleared of the murder that put him behind bars for almost 25 years, he strode out of a courthouse to congratulations from passers-by, a steak dinner with his family and the start of a new life.
The weeks since have been a mix of emotional highs and practical frustrations. He spent an evening as a VIP guest at a boxing match and slept that night on a cousin's couch. He marveled at strangers donating thousands of dollars to help him but doesn't yet have a place of his own.
He had his first meeting with a son he learned was his while in prison, even as he prepares to visit another son serving a prison term of his own.
"Coming back, you know, it's been hard. ... It's a lot to have to catch up on," Fleming says. But, he says: "I'm looking forward to it. Because I'm just so happy to be out here."
Fleming was cleared April 8 after prosecutors said they now believe what he had been saying all along: that he was on a family vacation in Disney World when a friend was shot dead in Brooklyn in 1989.
Defense investigators located witnesses who said Fleming wasn't the gunman. And prosecutors found previously undisclosed documents in their own files that supported Fleming's alibi, including a hotel phone bill he paid in Orlando, Fla., about five hours before the shooting.
During his years in prison, Fleming wrote letters to prosecutors, meditated, took vocational courses and logged disciplinary penalties for drug possession, creating disturbances and other infractions. He says he gave up being angry about his conviction but never lost hope he'd be freed.
When the word finally came, "the feeling — you have no idea," he says. "I just sat down on my bed, and I cried."
After dropping into 2014 from 1989, Fleming spent a recent day opening the first bank account he's had in his 51 years, learned to use his new iPhone and got an email address set up by one of his lawyers.
It has a "14" in it, for the year he was freed.
"Should have said '24' — the years that I did," he says, laughing.
For all he had to celebrate, Fleming also was facing a struggle to get on his feet. He left prison with less than $100 and no permanent home. He's getting divorced from his second wife, and his ailing, 71-year-old mother in Brooklyn can't take him in because she is already accommodating other relatives.
Lawyers Taylor Koss and Anthony Mayol plan to file false-conviction suits that could eventually net substantial sums, and a stranger launched an online campaign that has raised more than $32,000 for Fleming so far. To get by in the meantime, Fleming has signed up for food stamps and taken out a loan against a potential lawsuit settlement.
Fleming is among more than 1,350 inmates exonerated nationwide in the last 25 years. Studies have found those exonerated often confront challenges finding jobs and housing, rebuilding family relationships and grappling with the psychological legacies of their experiences.