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Kenny Phillips, Michael Sutton, and their lawyers claim authorities hid evidence that would have proved their innocence in a 2006 shooting.
CLEVELAND — Two men from Cleveland are bringing a lawsuit against three current or former Cleveland police officers and Cuyahoga County after spending more than a decade behind bars for a crime they always maintained they did not commit.
Kenny Phillips, Michael Sutton, and their lawyers at Friedman, Gilbert + Gerhardstein filed the federal civil rights suit on Wednesday, a year to the day after the men were found not guilty of the crimes they had originally been indicted and imprisoned for.
According to attorney Sarah Gelsomino, the lawsuit names three officers who were involved in the case in 2006, whom she said “were involved in fabricating claims against them, completely fabricating evidence against them, just making up stories about something that never happened.”
According to the lawsuit, in May of 2006, Phillips and Sutton were pulled over and arrested after witnessing a shooting ahead of them on the road. The lawsuit alleges that defendants — Daniel Lentz and Michael Keane — fabricated evidence linking Phillips and Sutton to the crime, and further contends Carl Hartman suppressed evidence. Lentz and Keane are still with the Cleveland Division of Police, while Hartman is no longer with the department.
Additionally, the filing names Cuyahoga County as a defendant for the “practices maintained by the prosecutor’s office,” including withholding evidence of Phillips and Sutton’s purported innocence, according to Gelsomino.
Phillips and Sutton were arrested for attempted murder, among other charges, and eventually convicted. After exculpatory evidence was uncovered in 2015, there was a new trial in September 2022, and this time, the pair were acquitted on all counts.
“In this case, Kenny and Michael now are saying, ‘These officers are responsible, this prosecutor’s office is responsible, and now they need to account for their wrongdoing that accounted for their wrongful conviction,'” Gelsomino stated.
“We’re thankful for the freedom, but it’s like now, who do we hold accountable for what we’ve been through?” asked Sutton. “I got arrested on stage. I had a full ride to college, so you all really took my life away from me.”
“I feel robbed, for sure,” Phillips added. “They knew —they held all the evidence from day one. They knew from day one that we [didn’t] do this.”
A state level case is also underway for wrongful imprisonment, with the aim of having the two men officially declared wrongfully imprisoned in order to seek financial compensation.
“There’s not a breath that they take or other exonerees take that is not impacted by the trauma of having been ripped off the streets and thrown into prison wrongfully, and that’s what this federal case is about,” Gelsomino said. “And it’s about saying that that’s a result of misconduct or wrongdoing.”
3News reached out to the City of Cleveland, are received the following response: “Our policy is to refrain from commenting on pending/open legal matters.”
We also reached out to the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office. Communications Manager Lexi Bauer shared the following statement:
“The Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office does not have a policy of withholding evidence. In fact, since 2009, our office has provided open discovery on all criminal cases. Our office did this prior to the Criminal Rule 16 amendment that required open discovery, which became effective on July 1, 2010. We were one of the first counties in Ohio to do so. In addition, this office pioneered an electronic process for open discovery utilizing a web-based system.
“The Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office has prosecuted more than 200,000 cases since the Sutton and Phillips case was tried in 2006. With so few cases overturned, it is abundantly clear that the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office operates in an exemplary manner in the prosecution of criminal cases.
“Due to pending litigation, we decline to comment further.”