HAMPTON, VA. (WAVY) — Come November, one Hampton man will get to vote for the next president.
Voting is something that many take for granted, including Paul Gatling, who just had his voting rights restored.
Gatling, 81, was exonerated at the beginning of May, after serving more than a decade behind bars for a crime that he did not commit. He was released from prison in 1974.
Gatling now lives in Hampton, near and his children and grandchildren. He says he could not be happier and more grateful to be a free man.
Gatling admits there is a gap in the memories from the time when he was locked up in a New York prison for a crime he says he had nothing to do with.
As he sat with 10 On Your Side’s Laura Caso in a conference room, he looked through pictures of his family. He pointed out a picture that was taken in prison.
“When I look at this picture, I have sunglasses on and I think to myself, what am I hiding from?”
Gatling says that prison was a mental drain and he had to stay alive behind the cement walls. His ‘nightmare’ started in October of 1963 when he says, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
One night, while Gatling was at work, a gunman burst into a home of a well-to-do Brooklyn, New York artist and shot him dead.
At the time, Gatling was 29-years-old and a Korean War veteran. However, he found himself in the middle of a massive investigation.
The artist’s wife at first couldn’t pick Gatling out of a line-up, but then she changed her mind.
“If someone had told me I was going to prison, I would have cursed them out,” Gatling says. “I never did anything wrong.”
He went on trial and was found guilty.
“Two lawyers came in the back and said, ‘Take a plea and save your life, because they are going to put you in an electric chair, Paul,'” Gatling says. “My wife fainted.”
He took the plea and was sentenced to 30 years to life behind bars. He spent his nights in prison in a fantasy world, where he would imagine himself on the beach with his children in Newport News.
“I think the hardest part of prison was not being with my children, my son and my daughter,” says Gatling.
They never visited their father because he simply did not want them too.
His daughter Sheree Gatling says, “There was a void, but I always had hope because I knew that my father was innocent.”
Gatling walked free in 1974 and his daughter Sheree remembers it well.
“I don’t want to say I was too proud to cry but all I could do was scream,” says Gatling.
It is a similar feeling he had more than 40 years later, when he got a very special letter in the mail.
“Congratulations Mr. Gatling, here’s your voter registration form,” Gatling reads the letter. “My grandfather, he didn’t have a whole lot of education but he taught us the power of the ballot.”
While there is a ten-year hole from Gatling’s pile of memories, he says he’s grateful to walk as a free man with his children by his side — and now, the right to vote, represents the cherry on top.