Elroy Phillips sits in prison despite proof of his innocence

Elroy Phillips sits in prison despite proof of his innocence

Elroy Phillips doesn't look much like a legal expert. With a pair of gold teeth, a short-cropped goatee, and a 245-pound build on a five-foot-ten frame, he looks twice as thick as an average man.

But while serving a 25-year sentence on a drug charge, Phillips has earned a paralegal degree and worked in the law library. He has also helped about 20 fellow prisoners a year with their appeals.

But there's one inmate, a prisoner with seemingly irrefutable evidence of his innocence, that Phillips, known among fellow inmates as Law, has been unable to free: himself.

Elroy Phillips was known as "Eighty-Six" on the streets of Miami. In prison he's now known as "Law."
Eric Barton
Elroy Phillips was known as "Eighty-Six" on the streets of Miami. In prison he's now known as "Law."
Private investigator Ralph Marston helped Phillips dig up documents and scored a key interview with the government’s lone witness.
Michael McElroy
Private investigator Ralph Marston helped Phillips dig up documents and scored a key interview with the government’s lone witness.

For all the help he has offered others, the 45-year-old known as Eighty-Six when he was growing up on the streets of Miami sits behind bars charged with a crime legal experts say he likely didn't commit.

Since West Palm Beach Police arrested Phillips in 2001 for allegedly selling $50 worth of crack to an undercover cop, he has spent the years collecting evidence. His legal work appears to show that the police fabricated evidence against him. A woman whom cops say witnessed the drug buy has since testified she wasn't even at the scene. Personnel records show that the undercover agent who claimed to have bought the crack wasn't on duty the night of the alleged buy. That officer — whose word single-handedly convicted Phillips — has since turned in his badge after facing accusations that he was a dirty cop.

In response, prosecutors and West Palm Beach cops have tried to cover up the shoddy police work. They appear to have doctored documents and lied in official statements. The woman who supposedly witnessed the drug buy even says she was offered money from a federal prosecutor and police officers to stick to the story.

New Times first wrote about Phillips eight years ago ("86ed," September 18, 2003). After he gathered his new evidence, New Times asked a judge, law school professors, and lawyers with no connection to him to analyze his case. All came to the same conclusion: Phillips should at least be granted a new hearing to present his evidence.

It's not that Phillips is an innocent man — he admits he sold drugs when he was younger. He has collected evidence that could be enough to overturn his conviction, and the justice system is supposed to correct such wrongs.

All of his new evidence now sits before U.S. District Court Judge Joan A. Lenard, who originally sentenced Phillips. He asked the judge in 2008 to hold a hearing on his new evidence and then dismiss the charges. With no other appeals left, Phillips hopes Lenard will give him a chance to present his evidence.

The man everyone calls Law says he has faith Lenard will make the right decision. "In this place, everybody is hopeless," Phillips said recently during a prison interview. "From the time I was sentenced, I was going to fight. I've never been hopeless."

Phillips admits the cops once had reason to suspect him. While growing up in the Little River neighborhood of Miami, he got caught up in the drug trade. During a July 14 prison interview, he wouldn't go into specifics, but he said he "worked with Colombians" and wasn't a minor player.

"Nah, I never worked the corners," he says. "But I don't want to go into that. All that's behind me."

Phillips says he gave up selling drugs after high school when he went to Brevard Community College. His hopes for a college degree ended, however, when he shot a man in his home at 2 a.m. December 22, 1992. Phillips claimed the man broke in, so he shot the burglar with the thief's own gun during a struggle. But the jury rejected his self-defense claim and found him guilty of attempted murder. A judge sentenced Phillips to 17 years in prison. He later convinced an appeals court that his lawyer had failed to adequately represent him, and he served only two years in prison.

After his release, Phillips started a landscaping company in West Palm Beach that landed a lucrative contract to maintain the grounds at the Department of Veterans Affairs hospital. He says the cops kept after him, though, because he made good money mowing the lawns, and police couldn't buy that a black man in the ghetto could do so well.

Cops claim Phillips was running a drug operation in 2001 out of a two-story, pale-yellow apartment building at 625 Eighth St. in downtown West Palm. A low-level dealer named James "Pumpkin" Yearby would work the fence out front, collecting money before fetching drugs hidden in an old dresser left out in the yard.

The night of April 6, 2001, at 9:30, undercover narcotics agent Michael Ghent claims he went to buy crack from Yearby in the hopes of gathering evidence against the drug ring. Ghent allegedly approached the apartment building and found Phillips working the fence alone. Ghent said an unidentified confidential informant, or CI, helped the deal go down and that he bought three crack rocks from Phillips for $50.

From the beginning, the bust was suspect. High-tech surveillance equipment the cops and DEA agents had been using to trail Phillips reportedly malfunctioned that night. Other cops who were supposedly there didn't see the deal go down, leaving Ghent and his CI as the lone witnesses. Ghent apparently forgot to fill out a report from the bust.

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10 comments
P_Nis
P_Nis

Unfortunately police and prosecutorial misconduct is rampant throughout our justice system. Cornell West says "Justice is what love looks like in public". Considering what we've seen in this case and in many other similar cases, that's a pretty sick thought isn't it?

john
john

Beyond a 'reasonable doubt'. It's easy for love-boat to talk with such callousness, as one enjoys' their freedom and privileges. Reverse rolls, and let's see how cavalier they are. Corruption, cover-up, lack of integrity and criminal conduct by the prosecutor and police is not uncommon in our judicial system. I've been involved with the Innocence Projects, and unfortunately there are many, very innocent, individuals in prison. Innocent people have been murdered by the government for crimes that they had no part in. This is a Truth, which reflects poorly upon us. Hopefully we are evolving into a more compassionate society; it appears that love-boat needs to put a little more love in that boat; and a little less contemptuousness. Great story Eric. I'm just coming off of a victory against the Florida Department of Corrections. The DOC charged an inmate with committing 3 crimes, that each had a life sentence. He was 300 yards away from the alleged crime scene, when this offense supposedly occurred. This innocent inmate was thrown into solitary confinement and isolated on the notorious Q-Wing at Florida State Prison, confined with murderers, psychopaths and the criminally insane for 3 years, for crimes that he had no involvement with. We won our case and I believe Elroy Phillips will win his case. Mr. Phillips is a rich man now; he will be a wealthy man upon his release.

loveboat2010
loveboat2010

Both phillips and the dirty cop should be sitting together in a cell. I dont think either one is innocent. Drug dealers ruin communities and attempt to paint this robin hood character.The dealer in this story admitted he did not do street level sales he delt with Colombians, which means he brought trafficking amounts of drugs into the inner city. To say he quit that life to do landscaping is BS. Although, there is a small percentage of corruption I dont think this story portrays the people that risk there lives everyday in extremely violent drug land of south florida. You have to be an idiot to be a corrupt cop eventually, you are caught or turned in by a real criminal.

Amber Phillips
Amber Phillips

My name is Amber Phillips & Elroy Phillips is my father, your comment is ignorant and narrow minded my father does not deny his wrong doings but he has served 10 years in prison for a crime that he did not commit. I have not seen my father since i was 8 years old I am now attending college on a full 4 year scholarship and my father from behind bars has been there every step of the way a decade is an extreme sentence for the alleged charges, and drug dealers do not ruin communities but the addicts themselves do. Drug abuse is a self detrimental crime if they didn't get the drugs from my father they would get it from someone else so do not blame him but blame the people who seek out drug and the dealers.

The Pulp Blog
The Pulp Blog

You have a good point, loveboat2010. Maybe he was still a dealer and, the logic goes, deserves his fate. But the justice system simply can't work that way. The cops are supposed to have the evidence to convict you, and when they fabricate evidence, as they may have done here, you ought to be set free.

shjanita_j
shjanita_j

@Amber Phillips i understand what you are saying and have been following your Dads story for a little bit. The last statement you made..." if they didn't get the drugs from my father they would get it from someone else so do not blame him but blame the people who seek out drug and the dealers."is a deep statement and since as he says was back when he was in High school, that should have been added at the end  or better yet, not posted because these same narrow minded folk, will take that statement and use it against you as  if you are confirming that this is the reason he is where he is now.

I am praying for him and your family. This case has bothered me for years. FLORIDA is a hot mess!! What do they do , put the sentences in a hat and whatever is pulled out is it? I just don't understand but know God has the final say.HONEY, DON'T LET THESE FOOLS ON HERE PUSH YOUR BUTTONS! Focus on school 

loveboat2010
loveboat2010

Your right Eric, my point is I dont feel sorry for either one of them. I grew up in the inner city and I know first hand how this life of a drug trafficker is glorified by the media. He chose to live a criminal life, you "live by the sword" and there is a price you pay for that, Karma. Drug dealers live by a "stop snitching" rule which makes the drug industry thrive with violence that plagues communities. On the other hand we have become a society that believes CSI Miami is real life you simply send a hair sample to washington and the facts of any case are revealed. This same menatlity set Casey Anthony free. It is the law to look at the totality of the circumstances. This idiot may be innocent because of a crooked cop but he is not innocent for the life he chose and the harm he has caused hundreds of people that suffer from addictions, not to mention the families he has ruined. Therefore, this attempt to portray a story of poor inncoent man can get to the back of the line of the millions who suffer from addiction and violent crime at the hands of drug dealers. I know one thing growing up in overtown I didnt worry about violence from a police officer but my family did suffer crimes at the hands of local criminals who will do anything for a buck. Guys like this that have a long rap sheets know how to manipulate the system and people who wil read and believe this criminals story.

Lucky Lieberman
Lucky Lieberman

loveboat2010, only a person of ignorance, who has no respect for the democracy of America woukd write such a cold, distorted and hateful comment. Your actions put you in the same category as the arresting police officer and the assistant U.S. Attorney in this case. They are the real criminals.

Lucky in South Beach

ivxx
ivxx

I get it, we should focus on 1 strike and your out then. If you get a speeding ticket, revoke your license.

Obviously this man made mistakes and he's paid for them. Hell those mistakes contributed to the image that the judge and jury saw when he sat in that court room.

"Oh lord, another wanna be gangsta drug dealer."

The difference is this man made his mistakes and moved on, then was dragged into this because god forbid someone make a legit living and live in the ghetto. Do you still live in Overtown? I bet you shot out of there like a bat out of hell once you got some money.

Whether he made bad decisions in his life is irrelevant, this man has been railroaded into the prison system. For you to sit there and insinuate that he deserves this because he "worked with Colombians" is ridiculous.

loveboat2010
loveboat2010

Let me get this straight, I write a comment on The New Times expressing my opinion as provided by the constitution and you are putting me in the same category as a corrupt cop and notorious drug trafficker? wow, you have gone a little above ignorance and into dumb ass category. Put down the bong and admiration for street life which you know nothing about. I grew up in Overtown, I never sold or aquinted myself with drug dealers which thanks to hardwork and drive I have a beautiful family and legal career. You my friend watch MTV and think these rappers actually care about community and live the life they portray. Glorifying the life of a drug trafficker has ruined many cultures and lost youths. When you live in such despair all you know is cold and straight facts. STop watching tv and walk these neighborhoods for yourself.

 
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