Elroy Phillips Dug Up Evidence From Prison, but He Still Might Not Get a Chance to Prove His Innocence

Elroy Phillips Dug Up Evidence From Prison, but He Still Might Not Get a Chance to Prove His Innocence
Eric Barton
Phillips spreads out the evidence he has collected across a table in the visitors' room at a prison in Kentucky.

Fernando Escobedo-Sanchez rode a bicycle up to the border station that separates Calexico, California, and Mexicali, Mexico. He pulled up to lane number ten around 7 p.m. on November 15, 2004. He handed over a U.S. Customs Temporary Resident Alien Identification Card. It bore his photo but another man's name, and if Escobedo-Sanchez had sprung for an extra fake ID, he might have gotten away with his crime.

Instead, a customs officer asked Escobedo-Sanchez for a second ID. This wasn't the first time 49-year-old Escobedo-Sanchez had been caught sneaking into the United States, and he sensed things were going sour. So he left his bike and bolted toward Mexican soil. Customs agents quickly caught him and charged him with attempting to enter the United States illegally after previously being deported, a felony that could earn him 20 years in prison.

Under a federal law meant to speed the process of deporting aliens, Escobedo-Sanchez could agree not to appeal his case and, in exchange, serve only two years in prison. He had just two days to accept the deal. So he called his court-appointed attorney, Jeanne Geren Knight. For two days, he left messages, according to court documents. The deadline passed, and so did the deal. A federal judge then sentenced Escobedo-Sanchez to just over six years.

Elroy Phillips was known as "Eighty-Six" on the streets of South Florida. In prison, they call him "Law."
Eric Barton
Elroy Phillips was known as "Eighty-Six" on the streets of South Florida. In prison, they call him "Law."
Private investigator Ralph Marston helped Phillips dig up documents and scored a key interview with the government's lone witness.
Michael McElroy
Private investigator Ralph Marston helped Phillips dig up documents and scored a key interview with the government's lone witness.

It was a rotten deal, and in prison, Escobedo-Sanchez complained to everyone about how he would spend four more years behind bars simply because his attorney wouldn't pick up the phone. Escobedo-Sanchez was sent to the United States Penitentiary in Atlanta, and there, everyone knew how he could get his case reviewed. They told him to go see Elroy Phillips, a prisoner whom everyone called Law.

Phillips had earned the nickname in prison and gave up the name Eighty-Six that he had used while growing up on the streets of Miami. The 45-year-old didn't look much like a law expert, with a pair of gold teeth, a short-cropped goatee, and a 245-pound build on a five-foot-ten frame, making him look twice as thick as an average man. While serving a 25-year sentence on a drug charge, Phillips had earned a paralegal degree and worked in the law library. He helped about 20 fellow prisoners a year with their appeals.

For Escobedo-Sanchez, he wrote a "motion to vacate," an 18-page document full of legal arguments and 16 pages of attachments. Escobedo-Sanchez filed the motion with his signature on June 28, 2007. It took dozens of follow-up filings written by Phillips, but a year and a half later, a judge finally ruled on the case. On December 29, 2008, after having served about four years of his six-year sentence, Escobedo-Sanchez was released and sent back to Mexico.

It was one of several prison-justice victories for Phillips. But for all the help he has offered fellow inmates, Phillips sits behind bars for a crime legal experts say he likely didn't commit. Since West Palm Beach police arrested Phillips in 2001 for allegedly selling $50 worth of crack to an undercover cop, he has spent the years collecting evidence. Phillips' legal work appears to show that cops fabricated evidence against him. A woman whom cops say witnessed the drug buy has since testified that she wasn't even at the scene. Personnel records show that the undercover agent who claimed to have bought the crack wasn't on duty the night of the alleged buy. That officer — whose word single-handedly convicted Phillips — has since turned in his badge after facing accusations that he was a dirty cop.

In response, prosecutors and West Palm Beach cops have tried to cover up the shoddy police work. They appear to have doctored documents and lied in official statements. The woman who supposedly witnessed the drug buy even says she was offered money from a federal prosecutor and police officers to stick to the story.

New Times first wrote about Phillips eight years ago ("86ed," September 18, 2003). After Phillips gathered his new evidence, New Times asked a judge, law school professors, and lawyers with no connection to Phillips to analyze his case. All came to the same conclusion: Phillips should at least be granted a new hearing to present his evidence.

It's not that Phillips is an innocent man — he admits he used to sell drugs when he was younger. He has collected evidence that could be enough to overturn his conviction, and the justice system is supposed to correct such wrongs.

All of Phillips' new evidence now sits before U.S. District Court Judge Joan A. Lenard, who originally sentenced Phillips. He asked the judge in 2008 to hold a hearing on his new evidence and then dismiss his charges. With no other appeals left, it's up to Lenard whether he'll get a chance to present his evidence.

The man everyone calls Law says he has faith Lenard will make the right decision. "In this place, everybody is hopeless," Phillips said recently during a prison interview. "From the time I was sentenced, I was going to fight. I've never been hopeless."


Phillips admits the cops once had reason to suspect him. While growing up in the Little River neighborhood of Miami, he got caught up with the drug trade. During a prison interview July 14, he wouldn't go into specifics, but he said he "worked with Colombians" and wasn't a minor player.

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11 comments
ElRonbo
ElRonbo

Even *if* he's guilty, spending over half a million dollars to lock someone up for selling $50 worth of drugs is beyond stupid. We should be cutting these sentences instead of cutting education and services for seniors and the disabled. 

Courtney H
Courtney H

Wild read! I hope this guy's case gets a second look. 

Tammy Sanford
Tammy Sanford

Well I wish you all the best and will pray for you and yours. I beleive in your innocent and 2nd chances. I am a Mom of an Inmate in federal prison that was set up by the DEA and Lied to They never even tryed to get the big guy's running the show even with their name given not by my son but his girl freind. I have a friend in the feds he says that the DEA is not interested in catching the big guys they just want knoches on their belts the more the marrier. Our Justice System is broken and Washington broke it. May God Bliss you with your freedom

DeathFrog3
DeathFrog3

Good reporting. I am not so sure that I believe that Phillips is innocent but the facts as related in this article prove that the police lied in their reports. The mere fact of the timeline refutes a major component of this case.

The Pulp Blog
The Pulp Blog

Having spent years now looking at the evidence in this case, I'd agree, DeathFrog3. Who knows, Elroy Phillips may or may not have been a drug dealer, but the evidence presented on this case was shaky at best.

 
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