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Free After 14 Years, Ohio Men Await New Trial

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Monday, July 5, 2021   

By Kennedi Combs / Broadcast version by Mary Schuermann, reporting for the Kent State-Ohio News Connection Collaboration.

For 14 years, Michael Sutton was imprisoned for crimes he claims he did not commit.

Before he was arrested for being involved in a shooting of two people and an attempted shooting of a police officer in 2006, the 18-year-old Sutton was about to graduate high school with a full ride to the University of Akron. He planned to study business administration and was excited for the next phase of his life.

"You just gotta say what it is. Four black kids at two in the morning on 55th in the middle of the projects," Sutton said. "You can say wrong place at the wrong time, but racial profiling plays a big part."

Now Sutton, a Cleveland native, and his co-defendant and childhood friend, Kenny Phillips, have been granted a new trial. The case was the first in which the Ohio Innocence Project and the Wrongful Conviction Project, two organizations committed to finding justice for wrongfully convicted individuals, worked together.

Cuyahoga County prosecutors in Michael O'Malley's office are standing by their decision to retry Phillips and Sutton.

"As expected, we are appealing this decision," Tyler Sinclair, public information officer, said in an email. "We owe nothing less to the victims of this crime. In the end, we must allow the entire legal process to run its course and we will be satisfied with whatever the outcome may be."

According to court documents, Cleveland Police officers John Lundy and Gregory Jones were patrolling the area near East 55th Street and Woodland Avenue in the early hours of May 29, 2006. Patrons were leaving area clubs at that time, and two other officers, Michael Keane and Daniel Lentz, were called in for backup due to the large crowd.

As Keane and Lentz approached the intersection of East 55th and Woodland, they testified they saw Sutton driving erratically. The officers followed his car as it turned right onto Woodland Ave. Lentz said he saw a passenger from Sutton's car fire a gun into a dark-colored Lincoln Mark VIII to its right. The officers testified that they then turned on their lights and sirens, and a gold car in front of Sutton's car was "out of there."

When Sutton's car turned right on Woodland Avenue, the four occupants, Sutton, Kenny Phillips, Deante Creel, and Akeem Tidmore escaped the vehicle. Lentz testified that, although it was dark, he observed two of the passengers carrying weapons. Lentz then testified he heard "several shots in his vicinity, saw the strobing of gun fire, and saw Creel throw a weapon." Within minutes of exiting the car, the four occupants were arrested.

Sutton's defense team, however, told a different story of what happened that night.

Phillips and his friends were celebrating his 18th birthday at Moda, a Cleveland nightclub. Around 2 a.m., Phillips, Sutton, Creel and Tidmore left the club and headed home in Sutton's cream-colored Chevy Caprice.

On the way, they stopped at a Marathon gas station at Kinsman Road and East 55th Street. When they left the gas station, they turned right onto Woodland Avenue and saw two cars in front of them: a small gold car and a dark-colored Lincoln Mark VIII. The defendants claimed the gold car pulled up parallel to the Lincoln, and an arm extended from the passenger window, shooting several shots into the left side of the Lincoln. The gold car then sped away.

Soon after the shots were fired, all four occupants of Sutton's car testified they heard police sirens. As they slowed to a stop to allow the police to pass them and pursue the gold car, they soon realized the police were instead stopping them. Sutton, who was driving, panicked, sped up, and turned right onto East 65th Street before he stopped, and all four passengers ran from the car. Within a few minutes, they were apprehended and arrested.

The victims in the Lincoln were Kenneth Tolbert, Kevin Tolbert, Christopher Lovelady, and Leonard Brown. Both Lovelady and Kenneth Tolbert experienced gunshot wounds to the head that resulted in permanent injuries.

While Creel and Tidmore were acquitted of all charges, Phillips and Sutton were convicted of multiple charges despite a lack of physical evidence. No guns, bullet casings or other evidence were found to link the two to the crimes. Phillips was convicted of four counts of attempted murder, among other charges, while Sutton was found complicit as the driver of the Caprice. Phillips was originally sentenced to 92 years and six months and Sutton to 46 years and six months.

Sutton's lawyer, Donald Caster, who is also a member of the Innocence Project, first joined the case in September 2017 after Sutton reached out to the Ohio Innocence Project for help. The Ohio Innocence Project worked on Sutton's case while the Wrongful Conviction Project worked with Phillips.

After 14 years in prison, Sutton and Phillips were released May 3, 2021, on $50,000 personal bonds after an Ohio appeals court granted them a new trial in March.

The ruling from the Eighth District Court of Appeals stated jurors never got to hear from Lundy and Jones, whose testimonies challenged those of Keane and Lentz. Because the state failed to provide this evidence, Sutton and Phillips were granted a new trial, according to the opinion written by presiding judge Anita Laster Mays, along with appellate judges Larry A. Jones, Sr. and Michelle J. Sheehan.

"To deny appellants' right to have all material evidence considered by the jury is a travesty of justice, particularly where there is minimal, questionable, physical evidence," they wrote.

Caster, Sutton's lawyer, said that evidence was extremely important.

"The two officers, Lundy and Jones, who have already given sworn testimonies [in 2015] that the other two officers, Keane and Lentz, first of all weren't where they said they were at the time of the shooting,so they couldn't have seen what they said they saw," Caster said. "They are also pretty firm that there was no shooting at the police during the foot pursuit."

Patrons in the Moda nightclub will be key witnesses in the new trial, yet to be scheduled.

"I think the other evidence is the witnesses who were in the club and who saw the alternate suspect [in the gold car] in an altercation with the victims at the club," Caster said. "Their affidavits were submitted to the court but never really ruled on. I think that will be an important trial testimony if the case is retried."

Sutton said his time in prison was rough, but his family and the personal knowledge of his innocence pushed him through his day-to-day life locked up.

"I can't even tell you how I did it, to tell you the truth. Family. When people don't give up on you on the streets, that plays a huge part."

After his conviction, the Sutton family plastered Facebook and Instagram with pictures of Sutton and the caption #FreeMike, relaying his story of innocence to anyone who would listen.

Derrick Walters, Sutton's uncle, also believed in his innocence from the beginning.

"As soon as I first heard that he was arrested, I knew something was off," Walters said. "He's not capable of something like that. He wasn't raised like that. However, everything that's done in the dark will come to the light eventually."

Despite the uncertainty of his future, Sutton is looking at the positive side of his situation.

"I just appreciate the free air," he said. "You get everything snatched away from you as a kid. So to come home now, I don't want to feel bitter about nothing, because this humbled me."

This collaboration is produced in association with Media in the Public Interest and funded in part by the George Gund Foundation.


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