John Fleming
© Assocaited Press
John Fleming gives a few brief statements being exonerated.
A man spent nearly 25 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit. In fact, there was proof that he wasn't even in the same state at the time of the crime, but prosecutors withheld that evidence, and coerced a false witness, in an effort to achieve an expedient conviction of a completely innocent man.

Wrongfully Accused

Jonathan Fleming, of Brooklyn, took a trip to Orlando, Florida, in August 1989. John, 27-years-old at the time, went to visit Disney World with his family.

During that trip, on August 15, 1989, a man named Darryl "Black" Rush was fatally shot to death back home in Brooklyn.

Three days after the murder, Fleming had returned home and was implicated as a suspect. He told investigators that he had ample proof of his alibi in Florida. Fleming had post cards, plane tickets, and videos of the trip. His family confirmed his whereabouts. He had receipts from the trip still in his pocket. When Orlando police did interviews, they even recorded witness statements of people who remembered Mr. Fleming in Florida.

However, the best alibi in the world wasn't enough to protect John Fleming from corruption in the judicial system.

Fleming was charged with Rush's murder and went to trial.

Defense lawyers did their best to show that Fleming was in Orlando around the time of the murder. They provided the plane tickets, video footage, and family vacation photos. But prosecutors argued that he could have flew home on some earlier time to complete the kill. They provided a list of 53 possible flights he could have taken back to New York.

The family members who claimed John was with them during the whole vacation were dismissed as liars and doubt was cast on their testimony.

Disturbingly, some of the evidence had gone missing: phone receipts that showed Fleming made a payment only 5 hours before the shooting took place. They were taken from his pocket by investigators, and then not produced as evidence for the defense to use during the trial. The jury never was allowed to hear about the receipts.

Most damning of all was a fraudulent witness that provided false testimony against Fleming. A woman named Jacqueline Belardo was sitting near her window near the scene of the murder at 2:15 a.m. on August 15th, 1989. Although she only heard the shots, and did not see anyone, she was pressured into identifying Mr. Fleming as the killer. In exchange, prosecutors agreed to drop an unrelated felony larceny charge against her.

Between the withheld evidence and the false witness, the jury was convinced that Jonathan Fleming was the killer, and he was convicted and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.

Recanted Testimony

Ms. Belardo, the prosecution's key witness, tried to back out of testifying. She told investigators that she had been pressured to lie, and that she had not really seen Mr. Fleming at the scene of the crime. However, prosecutors threatened to have her arrested for perjury if she didn't repeat her false testimony for the courtroom to hear. This threat was given multiple times.

She herself was facing a felony charge and years in prison, so she was an easy target to leverage into corruption - a common tactic among corrupt prosecutors.

"I was scared, nervous and on probation," wrote Belardo in a signed affidavit. She "started thinking how can I get out of here, so I lied."

Her testimony helped seal Fleming's fate. After the conviction, but before the sentencing, she tried again to come clean. Rather than giving the defendant a new trial, Belardo's admission was dismissed as lies.

According to the New York Times, her recantation again surfaced during one of Mr. Fleming's appeal hearings, but the judge discounted her new testimony.

'Where the Hell was this evidence?'

During the trial, the defense requested the phone receipt from the Orlando Quality Inn be entered as evidence. It showed that Mr. Fleming made a payment in Orlando at 9:27 p.m. on Aug. 14, 1989, making it highly unlikely that he could have made it back to Brooklyn in time for the shooting at 2:15 a.m. the next morning.

However, the detective responsible claimed he did not recall seeing it. Yet it was in the case file and no one bothered (or wanted) to look for it and hand it over. It placed Fleming over 1,000 miles away from the crime, less than 5 hours before the shots were fired. But the jury never knew anything about it.

Decades later, in 2013, new investigators discovered the receipt in the case file. Additionally, witness testimony from hotel staff in Orlando was uncovered. This evidence was also suppressed from the trial. Only family members were allowed to vouch for Fleming in front of the jury.

"[Prosecutors] had the evidence that this man was on a Disney World vacation when this crime was committed," said his attorney, Taylor Koss. "It's disgusting."

"He told his attorney he had in his pocket at the time of his arrest a phone receipt from paying a phone bill at [a Florida] hotel late in the evening of Aug 14, 1989," said Koss.

"The receipt was pretty strong alibi evidence," Koss continued. "His attorney went to the district attorney's office and asked for the receipt, and they said they did not have it. The police detectives also denied ever recovering the phone receipt. Fast-forward 25 years and the case file is opened again, and there is the phone receipt."

"Where the hell was this evidence all these years, and why wasn't it turned over until 25 years later?" Koss added.

How Could this Happen?

John Fleming_1
© Michael Appleton/New York Times
John Fleming loses composure and hugs his attorney after being freed from nearly 25 years in prison.
Jonathan Fleming stood calmly before the judge as the newly entered evidence was weighed before him. He lost his composure when the judge granted the motion to dismiss his indictment. He teared up as he hugged his defense attorneys, Taylor Koss and Anthony Mayol.

"Mr. Fleming is very happy that this day has come, but it's too little, too late," Mr. Koss said. "The man suffered for almost 25 years for a crime he didn't commit."

He had a tearful reunion with his mother, now 72-years-old, who said she always knew he was innocent.

Fleming had spend nearly a quarter century at Washington Correctional Facility in Comstock, New York.

"I can't accept it was a mistake," added Koss. A civil lawsuit is being planned.

Jonathan Fleming's nightmare is one of many examples of innocent people who have been sent to prison due to corruption and unfair trials. It demonstrates one of the reasons that convictions are not handed out unless all reasonable doubts have been quelled.

Citizens and jurors should not take it for granted that the government is acting honestly or justly. Corruption enters the system at every level. A prosecutor's "success" is measured by how many convictions he delivers, not the amount of justice that occurs under his watch. Many careers have been built upon the misery of innocent people convicted.

We should applaud the integrity of those who are willing to admit mistakes, fight for justice, and overturn past convictions. There are no shortage of cases like this.