Exonerated after 24 years

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 marvelled at strangers donating thousands of dollars to help him, but doesn't yet have a place of his own.

He had a first-ever 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.

Defence 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 said, and laughed.

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.

One legacy that haunts Fleming is regret over his 33-year-old son in prison, the one he left behind when he was arrested. The Disney World trip had been that son's ninth birthday present.


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