** See prior coverage in the player above.
Michael Sutton and Kenny Phillips were convicted for a 2006 Cleveland shooting that seriously injured two people. Sutton received a more than 40-year prison sentence, while Phillips — alleged to have shot at police — got a more than 90-year sentence.
But through the 14 years they spent in prison, they maintained their innocence.
In 2021, an appellate court found prosecutors suppressed evidence that would have cast doubt on the trial testimony of two Cleveland police officers who claimed to have witnessed the shooting and ordered a new trial.
Authorities never recovered the weapons they claimed were used in the shooting, or shell casings. Sutton’s and Phillips’ convictions relied largely on the testimony of those two Cleveland officers, Daniel Lentz and Michael Keane, whom the duo’s former defense attorney Joanna Sanchez said have a history of lying and falsifying reports.
“The police at the time alleged they were multiple shots fired, multiple weapons. There’s not a single bullet found, there’s not a single shell casing, not a single weapon, not a single bullet hole,” she said in 2021. “There’s no reliable physical evidence that tied these two to this case.”
After a series of appeals, an appellate court overturned Sutton’s and Phillips’ convictions in 2021 and ordered a new trial. They were released from prison in May of that year.
Attorney Justin Herdman, who represented Sutton in the retrial that concluded Monday in the Cuyahoga County Courthouse, told FOX 8 the appellate court found prosecutors never shared the testimony of two other police officers who first called in the shooting. That violates a court rule requiring prosecutors to disclose evidence that may support defendants’ innocence.
Though Lentz and Keane claimed to have seen gunshots being fired from Sutton’s car, they withheld testimony suggesting Lentz and Keane didn’t have the proper vantage point. Also, the testimony would have questioned whether Lentz and Keane actually heard the shots, as they claimed.
Prosecutors in 2006 showed evidence of suspected gunshot residue particles found Sutton’s car, as well as residue found on Phillips’ non-dominant hand. But in both cases, Herdman showed the residue could have actually been brake lining, he said.
“The entire collection of these particles were called into question based on a variety of errors and protocols that we were able to show through the cross-examination of the testimony of several witnesses involved with the crime scene and evidence collection,” Herdman said.
A jury found Sutton and Phillips not guilty on all charges Tuesday morning.
The Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office issued a statement on the verdict Tuesday:
“The State decided to move forward with a new trial because there were two innocent victims shot in the head that miraculously survived and they deserved their day in court,” it reads. “There was evidence in this case that the State was duty-bound to present to a jury, and we respect the jury’s decision. We respectfully decline to comment further.”
Herdman, the former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio federal court appointed under former President Donald Trump, now with Jones Day of Cleveland, was tapped to lead Sutton’s pro-bono defense. His co-counsel was Don Castor of the Ohio Innocence Project.
Phillips was represented by Diane Menashe of Ice Miller LLP in Columbus.
“Mr. Phillips and Mr. Sutton have waited over 16 years for this day,” Herdman said. “Every single one of the days that they’ve had to wait for this verdict is too long.
“This jury verdict is absolutely 100% the correct decision, but it does call into serious question how wrongful conviction cases are being handled out of the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office and out of the Cleveland police,” he continued. “There need to be serious questions about how these cases happen. This is a retrial that should have never happened.”