Longform

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.

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.

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Eric Barton
Contact: Eric Barton