UPDATE: In early March, 2014, despite mountains of evidence in favor of Elroy Phillips' innocence, a Miami-Dade judge upheld his 24-year prison sentence. Both Phillips' attorney, Marc Seitles, and the prosecution were in favor of having his 2002 conviction vacated. Seitles vows to continue fighting for his client's freedom.
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.
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.