Inmate Who Proved His Innocence From Prison Gets Rare Deal From Prosecutors
Photo by Eric Barton Phillips has spent 11 years in federal prison.
Elroy Phillips refused to accept his fate after being sentenced to 30 years on charges of selling drugs to an undercover cop. He conducted records searches, hired a private investigator, and dug up information on the dirty cop who testified against him. Last week, federal prosecutors were finally convinced to dismiss charges against him.
The final step is to get a federal judge to let him go free.
U.S. District Court Judge Joan A. Lenard, who originally sentenced Phillips, must now decide whether to accept an
agreement signed by prosecutors that would dismiss most of the charges
against Phillips and allow him out of prison.
Phillips' plight has been documented in a series of articles in New Times,
starting with a cover story in 2003. His efforts to prove his innocence
were outlined in another cover story last year, and Lenard was
convinced to give him a hearing to present his new evidence.
Palm Beach police arrested Phillips in 2001 on charges that he sold
drugs to an undercover cop. They claimed to have found drugs on him when
he was arrested and then added gun charges for bullets they
found in his West Palm Beach apartment.
At his trial in 2003, a
cadre of witnesses who had been paid by the government or given reduced
sentences testified that Phillips was the head of a drug ring. The most
damning testimony came from then West Palm Beach cop Michael Ghent, who
claimed to have bought about an ounce of crack from Phillips.
jury found Phillips innocent of most of the charges, but Lenard
sentenced him to 30 years for convictions that would have earned him
months in prison in state court. Phillips immediately began fighting the
charges. He won a brief victory when an appeals court found that he had
been sentenced wrongfully, but Lenard sentenced him a second time to 24
Convinced he could prove himself innocent, Phillips
filed public records requests from prison. He discovered that Ghent
wasn't working the night he supposedly bought drugs from Phillips and
was actually in a college class across town. A private investigator
Phillips hired, Ralph Marston, tracked down a confidential informant who
was supposedly with Ghent the night of the drug sale; she said she had
not been there that night.
Phillips also dug up documents on
Ghent's own criminal case. Police charged Ghent with bribery and other
crimes in 2007 after he shook down a massage parlor for tens of
thousands of dollars. Court documents also accused Ghent of running his
own drug ring while working as a cop. He entered a deal with prosecutors
that allowed the charges to remain off his record in exchange for
Ghent serving community service hours.
What finally convinced
prosecutors that Phillips should be released was a new deposition of Ghent taken this year. Michael
Zelman, Phillips' court-appointed attorney, had tracked down Ghent to
Phoenix, Arizona, and Ghent was interviewed in the FBI's office there.
Under questioning by Zelman and prosecutors, Ghent admitted that he had
no recollection of buying drugs from Phillips. He said he had used
articles by New Times to try to rebuild the details of the night.
Prosecutors later identified 11 lies that he told during the deposition,
including his denial that he had sold drugs while working as a cop.
would have been the main witness at an upcoming hearing in which
Phillip was to present his new evidence to the judge. With Ghent's
multiple lies weighing on them, prosecutors began negotiations last
month to get Phillips out of prison. Phillips learned on April 29 that
his release was imminent. His family brought street clothes to him at
the Federal Detention Center in Miami so he could walk out of a court
On May 4, prosecutors signed a joint motion that agrees to drop all charges
against Phillips except for his conviction on the small amount of
cocaine found on him during his arrest. That charge carries a two-year
sentence, so with credit for the 11 years he has already served, he
could be released from prison immediately. Prosecutors also filed court
documents seeking Phillips' immediate release on his own recognizance in case the judge needed time to consider whether to dismiss the charges.
But Lenard filed an order
late on May 4 questioning whether she has the authority to outright
dismiss the charges. She asked both sides to file a joint motion by May
11 outlining any law that gives her the authority to make such a rare
Until then, Phillips remains in federal prison, knowing
that he may be released any day, his street clothes still there with him
in his cell. Phillips and his attorney declined to discuss the case
until Lenard makes her decision. But during a prison interview last
year, Phillips, now 45 years old, said he could be patient until the day
he convinces the judge that he's innocent. "I'm an avid chess player,
and in chess, you gotta look at the end game, not what's in front of
you," he said. "That's what I did here."
Previous articles on Elroy Phillips:
• West Palm's "most notorious": Big fish or a small scapegoat in the war on drugs?, September 18, 2003
• After a Decade in Prison, Man Proves His Innocence -- Only to See Inaction From Courts, June 16, 2011
• Don't Believe Elroy Phillips Is Innocent? Read the Evidence He Collected Yourself, August 3, 2011
• Elroy Phillips Dug Up Evidence From Prison, but He Still Might Not Get a Chance to Prove His Innocence, August 4, 2011
• Elroy Phillips, in Jail on a Charge He Says He Can Prove Is Bogus, Will Get Day in Court, September 21, 2011
• "In This Place, Everybody Is Hopeless," Says Prisoner With Evidence to Prove He's Not Guilty, August 3, 2011
Eric Barton is editor ofNew Times Broward-Palm Beach
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