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Ohio Innocence Project at UC takes on possible wrongful conviction case

release of Michael Sutton
Posted at 5:25 PM, May 05, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-05 18:32:02-04

Michael Sutton has been incarcerated for nearly 15 years for a crime he may not have committed and a Cincinnati law team has helped to secure him a new trial.

The Cleveland man was released by a Cuyahoga County judge on Monday and is waiting on a new trial, after new information came to light about his case.

"It's a huge step forward in the case," said Donald Caster, associate professor of clinical law at the Ohio Innocence Project at UC.

Caster and the Ohio Innocence Project have been working on Sutton's case for several years.

In 2006, Sutton and his friend, Kenny Phillips were arrested, and eventually convicted, on multiple charges, including attempted murder of a police officer.

Sutton was sentenced to more than 40 years in prison.

His conviction rested on testimony from two police officers on the scene. Years later, this testimony has been called into question after lawyers discovered the officers initially told prosecutors a different version of events that was never presented during trial.

"They knew that those two officers, at the time of the shooting, weren't where they said they were and couldn't have seen where the shots came from, even though they said at trial that they did," said Caster.

The new information led the Ohio Eighth District Court of Appeals to set aside the conviction of Sutton and Phillips, determining that prosecutors violated the men's right to a fair trial. On Monday, the judge released them both until their new trial begins.

"If there's anything that I can say that I've accomplished in my professional life, it will be that I was able to help bring Michael home to his mom in time for Mother's Day this year," said Caster.

From here, prosecutors can either appeal their cases to the Ohio Supreme Court by May 27 or move forward with the retrial.

The initial case, with a lack of physical evidence, relied heavily on the testimony from the officers. Without that, Caster is doubtful the pair will actually see another trial.

"The evidence back in 2006 was extraordinarily weak," he said. "It's even worse. It's hard to imagine them actually deciding to retry Kenny and Michael."

The Ohio Innocence Project, out of the University of Cincinnati's College of Law, has helped to free 33 innocent Ohioans since it started in 2003. The Project said more than half of all wrongful convictions in the United States involve some form of official misconduct, like what happened in Sutton's case.

"It's been a rollercoaster," said Caster. "But Michael was thrilled. Michael just wanted to hug his mom and be with his family."