After a Decade in Prison, Man Proves His Innocence -- Only to See Inaction From Courts

Categories: Crime
Elroy Phillips.JPG
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Phillips remains in a Kentucky prison on charges he can prove he didn't commit.
April 6, 2001, is a day that has haunted Elroy "Eighty-Six" Phillips. That's the day West Palm Beach cops say they bought nearly a gram of coke from him outside an apartment building at 625 Eighth St. They claimed they paid him $50 for the drugs, and for that, he could spend three decades in prison.

The bust was sketchy from the beginning. The surveillance equipment that had been watching Phillips for weeks was oddly missing that night, and the cops claimed they somehow forgot to fill out a police report afterward. An unsigned, undated report showed up at Phillips' federal trial on gun and drug charges.

It seemed like the cops had set Phillips up for a fall, and fall he did. Even though he was acquitted of all the other charges, U.S. District Judge Joan A. Lenard in 2003 sentenced Phillips to 30 years in prison -- far more than the few months most might face for allegedly selling $50 in cocaine.

From there, Phillips, now 44, began a nonstop, decadelong campaign to get his conviction overturned. In 2003, I wrote a cover story in New Times about his efforts, and since then, he's been calling or emailing me a few times a year about some new development or evidence he's uncovered.

Now, a decade after his original conviction, Phillips has brought forward evidence that proves his innocence. The new documents and testimony show that cops never bought cocaine from him on April 6, 2001.

Common sense would dictate that the next step would be Phillips walking free. But  sometimes, as is the case here, the justice system simply fails.

"Welcome to the illusion that is the American justice system," says Randee Golder, the West Palm Beach attorney who represented Phillips at trial.

At the trial in 2002, prosecutors described Phillips as a kingpin and enforcer of the hood off North Tamarind Avenue in downtown West Palm. After his conviction, police Capt. Dennis Crispo, now an assistant police chief, lauded the lengthy sentence for getting a "badass" and "dangerous element" off the streets.

Phillips claimed from the beginning that they targeted him because he had made decent money from his lawn business. Cops can't believe a black man in the ghetto can make good money, he said.

After his conviction, Phillips didn't give up his fight against the coke charge. He appealed and his sentence was reduced to 24 years. But his conviction was upheld, so he hired a private detective.

P.I. Ralph Marston had heard about Phillips' case from a fellow investigator and agreed to take on the case for a couple of hundred bucks, far less than his usual fee. Phillips urged Marston to research the cop who supposedly bought drugs from him and the confidential informant who testified at trial that Phillips was a big-time dealer.

The cop was Michael Ghent, who had worked in the department's organized-crime section. Marston started by hunting for police documents on the drug buy. Police records showed that no cocaine had been put into evidence the night of April 6, 2001.

Even better, records showed that Ghent wasn't on duty that night. His timecard, punched for other days during that pay period, show he never clocked in that day.

In fact, Ghent was attending a hostage-negotiation class that night at Palm Beach State College. Marston then took a statement from Jack F. Maxwell, who was teaching the class (click here for the statement). Maxwell didn't recall if Ghent was in his class that night, but Maxwell said he wouldn't have given Ghent his certificate of completion if he hadn't been there. And Maxwell had given his students a test that night -- a test Ghent took.

Marston figured Ghent must have been a dirty cop, and in February 2007, that appeared to have been confirmed. The West Palm Beach Police Department charged Ghent with bribery, solicitation of prostitution, and perjury. Ghent had allegedly strong-armed a West Palm massage parlor into paying him protection money in cash and sex. Ghent took payments of as much as $12,500 and had sex with women at the now-closed Relax With Us II at least 13 times.

In April 2007, Ghent, who couldn't be reached for comment, cut a deal with prosecutors that allowed him to escape punishment for the charges. In exchange, he agreed to do 60 hours of community service and give up his certification to be a cop (click here for the plea documents). After completing the deal, prosecutors dropped the charges, meaning Ghent avoided having a guilty verdict appear on his record. Ghent walked free on charges that could've landed him in prison for decades.

With the information on Ghent, Marston figured he had what he needed to prove Phillips was innocent. But he kept digging and went looking for the confidential informant who testified at trial. The woman agreed to give Marston a statement about her involvement in the case. She said that Ghent had told her to "set a price" for fabricating evidence against Phillips. Federal prosecutors gave her at least $9,600. And Ghent gave her more -- she told Marston that she began a romantic relationship with Ghent. She said she moved in with him while helping convict Phillips.

Marston, a former Orange County cop, says what bugged him about the case was that cops aren't supposed to fabricate evidence to get a conviction. "I'm not saying Elroy didn't do bad things in the past," Marston says, "but what they say he did, he didn't do."

All this evidence to prove Phillips' innocence may not amount to much. He has exhausted his appeals, and his only option now is to ask the judge who sentenced him to reconsider. Golder, who represented him at trial, says that's unlikely, especially since Phillips doesn't have a lawyer. In 2009, Golder took the rare move of sending the federal prosecutor on the case a letter supporting Phillips' attempts to get a new trial (click here for a copy of the letter).

In 2008, Phillips filed his own motion to overturn his conviction, a 100-page filing typically called a 2255 after the U.S. code that governs it. Lenard has yet to rule on the request and hasn't indicated if Phillips will even get a hearing to present his new evidence.

Phillips' 68-year-old mother, Cynthia Phillips, looked into hiring an attorney for her son. A retired seamstress, she can't afford the $30,000 it would cost. "One of them told me, 'Unless you have a winning lottery ticket, I can't do anything for you,'" she said from her home in Jacksonville. "I don't have that kind of money, so all I can do is hope and pray they let him out."

For his part, Phillips says he's holding on to the dimming hope that the judge will take notice of the new evidence. By phone from federal prison in Kentucky, he said: "I know it's gonna happen eventually. I just need to stay in the struggle."

If he doesn't, he'll stay in prison until May 5, 2022. He will have spent half his life behind bars for a crime he can prove he didn't commit.


More 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
Prosecutors Agree to Release Inmate Who Proved His Innocence, May 7, 2012



Follow The Pulp on Facebook and on Twitter: @ThePulpBPB. Follow Eric Barton on Twitter: @ericbarton.


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19 comments
Anonymous
Anonymous

I'm sorry to say but that michael Ghent is my biological father that I haven't seen in years what he did is extremely wrong I would bare to look at him if I saw him which I haven't since I was six years Old.... So dear to the parents of Phillip I'm dearly sorry

nelsonrappaport
nelsonrappaport

Is there a nazi or devil more evil than Judge Joan A. Lenard? In fact, not even the devil gets that evil. "The Honorable" my a___. Is it not obvious the woman has not a shred of "honor" in her character?

Sphilli7
Sphilli7

This man Elroy Phillips is my father and has six bright children one who has just graduated from one of the best colleges Howard university and myself a junior in college at savannah state university we need him he's not the man that the news paper wants you to think he is he is a wonderful father even if he has spent most of my life from behind bars being that father for something he did not do I hope and pray he comes home soon

free at last
free at last

As my personal experience has shown, cops plant drugs on poeple more than you think. I have heard as much as 60% of the cases. Looks like we are sending the wrong people to jail.

zovannee1
zovannee1

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Ubersapien
Ubersapien

The Jewish people living in and around Germany, before, during, and after WW2, found out first hand that being a person doesn't matter at all when those people are seen through the eyes of greed, corruption, and contempt colored glasses.

TNP
TNP

This is America... Where MONEY comes first, people second.

JustWatching
JustWatching

Welcome to America.  This isn't a meritocracy.  And if you think all people are equal, just who do you think you are equal to?  Judge Lenard?  Ha!  You will address her as honorable, remember.  Ghent?  Fat chance.  He's got a gun, and the ear of the judge.

And Phillips?  Black, born in America.  Not a good choice of location, all things considered.

Random
Random

and they wonder why people shoot cops

UpNyouDeep
UpNyouDeep

This is fucking outrages, the fact that the informant was paid for fabricating evidence against Phillips is immorally wrong in a number of ways. What is the incentive to tell the truth when your offering money to the informant. And the informant was having a relationship with the arresting officer taints the D A`s case so much  that Stevie Wonder could see it. In the documentary Cocaine Cowboys II the District Attorney was unable to use their informant cause he had phone sex with an employee in the D A`s office so they considered the case was tainted for that reason. But here you have the arresting officer sleeping and living with the informant while the case was going on. Was he providing witness protection? Then the officer is arrested for bribery, solicitation of prostitution, and perjury. Perjury means he lied in court, bribery means he will pay money to get his way or take money to look the other way. Anyone who was ever arrested by this officer and the arrest was questionable should raise concerns to their own case or even rally behind this man and help him. C`mon the officer wasn`t even at work that night, and no cocaine was checked into evidence that night. , An unsigned, undated report showed up at Phillips' federal trial on gun and drug charges. And the judge accepted a half ass report like that and did not throw that bullshit out of her court room. Ok everybody is entitled to make mistakes on Mondays. All the education it takes to be a judge this one was to easy. All reports and declarations addressed to the court have to be signed under the penalty of perjury that everything stated is true and correct. U.S. District Judge Joan A. Lenard what the hell are you waiting for? Not only should he be released, you should be there apologizing for the corrupt officer who abused the law and your court room and other court rooms according to his perjury conviction. And why did he walk away with no jail time? Was it  because he was saving the city a lot of money in lawsuits  on other cases where he fabricated evidence that might get over turned? Damn with all the evidence he has if I was a lawyer i would take the criminal case with the agreement that i can have the Civil case too once i get him out. Oh yeah there is going to be a civil case that`s right. And through the civil case the officer should get arrested under section 1983 of the Constitution  for violating the Constitutional rights of this man and Judge Joan should be pushing this issue to let all officers know if you come in my court room with this bullshit there will be hell to pay. I guess this is why I am not a lawyer cause I would be jumping all over cases like this for nothing. Not to defend people but to defend Justice and what it really stands for.

Lights Neon
Lights Neon

Unreal. This guy needs to be set free and that dirty cop needs to go to prison IMMEDIATELY

anonymous
anonymous

This is outrageous!  It seems like a lot of people other than Phillips should be locked up.  Where's the moral decency of the system that did this to an innocent man.

Jezebel
Jezebel

This guy deserves a new day in court. It's really sad that he's been locked up for a decade.

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