At 2:15 a.m. on August 15, 1989, 22-year-old Darryl Rush, a reputed drug dealer, was shot to death outside a public housing development in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York.
On August 19, 1989, New York police arrested 27-year-old Jonathan Fleming, who also was a drug dealer in the Williamsburg neighborhood, and charged him with the murder despite Fleming’s claim that he was in Florida on a family vacation to Disneyworld at the time of the crime.
Fleming went on trial in Kings County Supreme Court in July 1990. The main witness against him was an admitted crack addict who testified that she recognized Fleming as the gunman from the window of her apartment despite the darkness and the fact that she was more than 400 feet away from the shooting.
Fleming’s lawyer introduced evidence that included plane tickets and home video footage of Fleming in Orlando with his family. Several relatives who accompanied Fleming on the trip testified that he was with them. And one relative said he picked up Fleming at an airport in New York on August 16—the day after the murder.
The prosecution contended that none of the family videos were taken on August 15, the day of the crime, and argued—without any tangible evidence—that Fleming could have flown to New York, shot Rush and then flown back to Florida.
On July 20, 1990, Fleming was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
After the conviction, the eyewitness recanted her testimony, saying she had falsely implicated Fleming because she had been arrested by police on a larceny charge and was threatened with jail time. However, Supreme Court Justice Albert Koch, who was the trial judge, rejected a defense motion for a new trial saying the recantation was not credible.
Fleming filed and lost several appeals over the years. In 2013, a prosecutor in the Kings County District Attorney’s Office’s Conviction Integrity Unit agreed to examine Fleming’s case after a team of lawyers and private investigators presented new evidence of innocence.
The evidence included a sworn recantation from the eyewitness saying she had lied. She said that she told police that she didn’t know who shot Rush, but after she was arrested and threatened with jail, she agreed to testify against Fleming. The defense team located a police log that showed the eyewitness had been arrested—as she claimed—before Fleming’s trial and the charge against her was dismissed.
The defense located key documents in police files that were never disclosed to Fleming’s defense lawyer in violation of court rules. The documents included a receipt showing that Fleming paid a phone bill in person at a Florida hotel at 9:27 p.m. on August 14—just hours before Rush was killed at 2:15 a.m. on August 15. Also discovered was an Orlando police report of interviews with hotel employees who recalled Fleming being there.
In addition, a member of the Conviction Integrity Unit accompanied Fleming’s investigators to South Carolina where they interviewed a man suspected of being the getaway driver. The man said that Fleming was not involved and provided the name of another man he identified as the gunman.
The effort to convince the District Attorney, Charles Hynes, to exonerate Fleming stalled when the head of the Conviction Integrity Unit resigned and said Hynes himself would make the final decision. Hynes, however, did nothing and then, in November 2013, he was defeated for re-election by former federal prosecutor Kenneth Thompson.
On April 8, 2014, the defense filed a motion to vacate Fleming’s conviction and the prosecution did not object. The motion was granted, the case was dismissed and Fleming was freed.
In June 2014, Fleming filed a lawsuit against city officials seeking $162 million for his wrongful incarceration. The lawsuit was settled in June 2015 for $6.25 million.
– Maurice Possley