Jonathan Fleming, who was exonerated of murder after almost 25 years behind bars, on his way to get is first bankcard on Friday April 18, 2014, in New York. The weeks since his release have been a mix of emotional highs and practical frustrations. "Coming back, you know, it's been hard. ... It's a lot to have to catch up on."Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
By JENNIFER PELTZ
NEW YORK — 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.
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.
"Sometimes I feel like I failed him because I really feel if I was out there, I don't think he'd be in prison now," says Fleming, who is planning a visit.
He's also been reconnecting with his other three sons, including one born while he was in prison and a 32-year-old son he didn't know he had until after he was behind bars. Fleming visited him and his family in Pennsylvania.
"They had a cookout," he says. "Made me really feel at home."
Fleming doesn't want to talk about his life before his arrest. He'd had other brushes with the law; prison system records show he had served about a year in an auto-theft case.
What he will say is: "I'm not going to pick up where I left off. It's a new day."
"A New Day" is his working title for a book he started writing in prison and hopes to publish someday. He also wants to go to college, maybe law school, to help other inmates challenge convictions and to advise young people about staying out of trouble.
"I'm excited to move forward," Fleming says. "Because I know God has a plan for me."