Judge Grants Prisoner Chance to Present Evidence He Says Proves His Innocence

A South Florida man sentenced to decades in prison for a minor drug charge will finally get his chance in court to prove he didn't commit the crime.

U.S. District Court Judge Joan A. Lenard issued a ruling September 8 that grants Elroy Phillips a hearing to present his evidence. Phillips has collected witness statements and documents since his 2003 conviction for selling less than a gram of crack to an undercover West Palm Beach cop.

His plight was detailed in a New Times cover story last month.

Experts -- including law professors, attorneys, and a judge -- said Phillips deserved a chance to at least present his evidence before a judge, and Lenard apparently agreed.

Lenard wrote that case law requires Phillips to get a hearing as long as his claims are not "patently frivolous" or "affirmatively contradicted by the record." The judge wrote that the evidence Phillips has found meets that standard and that a hearing is "necessary."

Lenard specifically mentions five arguments Phillips has made claiming his innocence. The judge's ruling refers to a statement from a police informant who supposedly witnessed Phillips buy drugs from the cops. The informant told a private investigator whom Phillips hired that she was not there.

Lenard also noted that the arresting officer, Michael Ghent, has since been forced to turn in his badge after allegations he was selling drugs and shaking down a massage parlor for payoffs.

Only Ghent and the confidential informant were said to have witnessed the drug buy, meaning Phillips's conviction hinges on a witness who now says she had nothing to do with the arrest and a cop who was run off the force.

Lenard didn't set a date for the hearing but ordered that it be overseen by U.S. Magistrate Judge P.A. White. Lenard had asked White to review Phillips's case to determine if he should get a new trial. White issued a 67-page report last year that recommended that Lenard should deny the request. But in her new ruling this month, Lenard ruled that the new evidence Phillips had uncovered warranted a new hearing.

In a federal prison in Kentucky, Phillips received a copy of the ruling in the mail yesterday and sent New Times a brief, elated email. "At least I know I'll get my day in court real soon," he wrote.

Phillips's son, Elroy Phillips Jr., also learned of the ruling yesterday. He checks the court file almost daily for news of his father's case. "I'm just ecstatic," he said. With the hearing, his father will likely be transferred to a South Florida prison, meaning he can see him for the first time in years. "I'm just so excited about it. This is a big step for us."

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Eric Barton
Contact: Eric Barton