How An Innocent Man Spent 25 Years In Prison

by Lulu Chang

25 years ago, The Happiest Place On Earth was deemed an insufficient alibi for Jonathan Fleming, who was accused of murdering his friend Daryl "Black" Rush. Despite considerable evidence that he was, indeed, at Disneyworld and not in Brooklyn where the crime was committed, Fleming was convicted and jailed in 1990. On Tuesday, a quarter-century later, Fleming was exonerated and was released into the loving arms of his family.

And Fleming's case isn't an isolated one — recent developments in the Brooklyn District Attorney's office have shown that others may have been wrongfully accused and sentenced. Fleming was on vacation in Florida in August of 1989, and had plane tickets, videos, and postcards to corroborate his story. But this wasn't proof enough that he had not shot and killed Rush, according to prosecutors, who presented a list of 53 flights Fleming could have taken to make a quick trip back to New York in order to commit the crime before returning to Disneyworld.

Ultimately, it seems that it was the testimony of a key witness, Jacqueline Belardo, who testified to seeing Fleming shoot Rush, that sealed his fate. Although Belardo later recanted her statement before Fleming was sentenced, saying she had falsely accused him in exchange for having her grand larceny charges dropped, prosecutors said she was lying.

Fleming's case was reopened last year at the request of his defense team. New evidence was presented in the new trial, including a hotel receipt in Florida for a transaction made just hours before Rush's death, as well as new witnesses, previously ignored by the prosecution, who suggested it was someone other than Fleming who shot Rush.

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This case is the latest of a string of possibly unjust verdicts, which are being handled by new Brooklyn District Attorney, Kenneth Thompson. Thompson, who defeated incumbent Charles Hynes, won largely on a platform of investigating wrongful convictions. Thompson has now ordered a review of some 50 murder cases.

While former DA Hynes established the Conviction Integrity Unit following a series of revelations regarding suspicious indictments, he came under fierce attack for moving too slowly, and for coming to the defense of prosecutors who were accused of misconduct or refused to acknowledge the refutation of some of their convictions.

Last year, Hynes faced enormous pressure to address what may amount to hundreds of murder convictions that may have resulted from "coerced confessions, intimidated or untrustworthy witnesses, prosecutorial misconduct or discredited detectives." Chief among these discredited detectives is team of "dirty cops" Louis Scarcella and Stephen Chmil, who rose to fame in the Brooklyn crime world in the '80s and '90s due to their impressive capacity to make arrests and get convictions.

However, last March, their reputation was questioned following accusations of lying and cheating in order to pin a case on a man who has now been deemed innocent.

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In fact, according to the New York Times: "No other New York City detective’s name appears more frequently than Mr. Chmil’s in the Initiative’s caseload of 300 convictions that are deemed probably wrongful."

Further reviews of cases handled by Scarcella or Chmil have shown that the men either hid or failed to turn over key evidence in some cases, notably for two men who were convicted of murder in 1985. One of these men has been in prison for over two decades, and the other died behind bars. Handwritten notes by the detective first assigned to the case were recently discovered at Police Headquarters, and show that two previously untapped witnesses named two different killers from the ones who served or are serving time.

In light of these recent, painful revelations, Steven Banks, the chief lawyer for the Legal Aid Society, said:

There’s no question that this is going to be painstaking work to undo a problem that was years in the making.

It appears that DA Thompson has inherited a slew of possibly wrongfully (or even illegally) decided cases that he'll need to sort through. While recent victories for justice, like that of Jonathan Fleming, give hope that progress can be made, it'll be a slow process. One can only hope that if other convicts are innocent, they'll be able to return home to their families — and as Fleming did, hug their mothers after 25 years.