RALEIGH, NC – Jonathan Fleming spent nearly 25 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit.
In 1989, jurors convicted him of second-degree murder in the death of a New York drug dealer.
Fleming, who also sold drugs and knew the man, said he had a solid alibi.
"I happened to be in Florida with my family at the time when my friend was killed," Fleming told CBN News. "I took my oldest son to Orlando, Florida for his birthday, for his ninth birthday."
But prosecutors argued that Fleming could have returned to Brooklyn to commit the crime. They also produced a witness who testified to seeing him pull the trigger.
"She said she actually saw me do this murder," said Fleming. "I said to myself, 'That's not true because I wasn't even in New York on that day.'"
False Imprisonment Leads to Deep Anger
Fleming, however, was found guilty and spent the next 24 years of his life behind bars.
"Prison was really rough," he said. "I was in prison for something I didn't do. So, I started getting into a lot of trouble. But I was very angry."
Fleming said that anger consumed him until an experience he had at a church service behind bars.
Jonathan Turns His Life Over to God
"I don't remember what the word that day was but I found myself standing up and I went forward," he said. "And I turned my life over to God."
It was a spiritual transformation that answered long time prayers for Fleming's ex-wife Patricia Johnson.
Fleming called her to tell her that he had changed.
"I just listened to him go on and on about what the pastor had preached and how he found his self just getting up and going towards the altar and yes this feel so good," explained Johnson. 'I don't know what I'm feeling but I'm excited Trish.' And I was like, 'God is just awesome.'"
Jonathan Gets a Break – His Case Gets a Review
Fleming spent years trying to prove his innocence and a break finally came when new investigators along with Brooklyn's Conviction Review Unit took his case.
Attorneys found evidence proving Fleming could not have been in New York at the time of the murder; information authorities never turned over to his defense team.
"We were able to discover a document, a receipt which had been taken from Mr. Fleming at the time of his arrest which indicated he had an alibi that he was in the state of Florida at the time the offense occurred," said Mark Hale, Chief of the Brooklyn Post-Conviction Justice Bureau. "That of course meant that the eyewitness testimony produced in that case was false."
These investigative teams, also known as Integrity Review Units, are spreading across the country. And in 2018 alone, statistics show they helped free 58 wrongfully convicted people.
"In 2014 there were probably less than 20 such units around the country," said Hale. "Since that time and the success, we had initially and continue to have with regard to our conviction review unit, that number has more than doubled to the point where we have more than 40 such units around the country."
The eyewitness who said she saw Fleming commit the crime also recanted, and newly found witnesses implicated someone else in the murder.
An Integrity Review Unit in Georgia helped to free Darrell Hall, who in 1991 had been sentenced to life in prison for possessing two grams of cocaine.
Media mogul Tyler Perry recently gave Hall a job at his Atlanta studios.
"He said he was having trouble getting a job and I was like, 'well look around, we got lots of room around here.'"
Perry added, "It just shows you the level of how if you're poor and black and disenfranchised how you don't even have a chance at justice in most cases."
The Long Road to Justice
In Fleming's case, justice arrived on April 8, 2014, after almost 25 long years behind bars.
"It was like my life starting all over again," explained Fleming "I was so happy. The judge said your case is dismissed and the first thing I did, I turned around and went right to my mother."
While Fleming is grateful for the work of attorneys and investigators, he said the real credit goes to the Lord.
"He released me and delivered me when he felt that I was ready, said Fleming. "If I would have gone to prison for three, four years, went to prison for 10 years, I probably would have returned doing back the same thing I was doing, selling drugs."
It wasn't until I turned my life over to him that things started happening."
That included letting go of the anger he had towards those responsible for robbing him of nearly 25 years of his life, including time he missed with his mother who passed away shortly after his release.
"I was able to forgive because he forgave me for the things I've done."
Fleming's story, the subject of an upcoming book entitled, 24/7: Wrongfully Convicted, Rightfully Released, has already been an inspiration.
"He actually helped me go back and forgive some people in my past that I hadn't released," said Fleming's Pastor Olden Thornton. "I said if this man can forgive somebody for being falsely accused, being in prison for 24 years, I feel like I'm free because of him."
Helping Others Wrongly Incarcerated
Meanwhile, the state of New York awarded Fleming $6 million dollars for his wrongful incarceration. He now hopes to help others through the Jonathan Fleming Foundation.
"When I came home, I didn't have nothing," said Fleming. "I want to help people when they come home to try to provide them with homes, places to stay, places they can go to when they are released. Cause a lot of times we're just pushed out with nowhere to go," said Fleming.