Two Teens Were Wrongfully Convicted and Spent 15 Years in Prison – Little Did They Know What Was Coming Next
“We are doing this as a way to present an opportunity ripped from their lives.”
Michael Sutton and Kenny Phillips were just teenagers when they were arrested, tried, and found guilty of attempted murder. Sutton was sentenced to 41 years in prison. Phillips was sentenced to 92.
It was a crime they didn’t commit.
15 years after being wrongfully convicted and imprisoned, the two men were exonerated and freed from jail. But not before losing a decade and a half of their lives to a horrible injustice.
It’s a wrong the University of Akron is trying to make right.
The university just granted the two men full scholarships, giving them a chance at the future they were so unfairly denied.
How Two Innocent Teens Were Wrongly Convicted for a Crime They Didn’t Commit
In May 2006, high school seniors Sutton, then 17, and Phillips were out with friends celebrating Phillips’ 18th birthday.
They were on their way home with two other friends when they found themselves in the middle of a drive-by shooting.
“It went down the same night as my 18th birthday,” Phillips, 34, told News 5 Cleveland. “Everybody was like, ‘Let’s go out for your birthday. Let’s celebrate.’ But wrong place, wrong time.”
According to the University of Cincinnati’s Ohio Innocence Project (a nonprofit that works to release wrongfully convicted people from prison), the 4 boys were stuck in traffic when someone in a gold-colored car in front of them leaned out and fired at another vehicle. Two people suffered injuries.
Police arrested Sutton and his friends and they were charged with multiple counts including attempted murder and assault. Two of the teens were eventually found not guilty.
However, Sutton and Phillips were convicted of the crimes after two police officers falsely testified that the shots came from the teens’ car and that Phillips also fired shots at officers during a foot chase.
At the time of their conviction, there was no physical evidence linking them to the crime. The prosecution was never able to produce a gun or any shell casings and there was no one that corroborated the officers’ version of events, despite a crowd of witnesses that night.
And yet, a jury found the teens guilty and sentenced them to prison where they would end up serving 15 years.
How the Two Innocent Men Were Finally Exonerated
In May 2021, thanks to new evidence brought to light by the Ohio Innocence Project and the Wrongful Conviction Project, Sutton and Phillips’ initial convictions were overturned.
After years of proclaiming their innocence, they were finally released from prison.
And in September 2022, a jury unanimously found them not guilty in a retrial.
A decade and a half later, their nightmare finally came to an end.
“This is what happens when police officers get it wrong and refuse to acknowledge their mistake,” Donald Caster, Sutton’s lawyer with the Innocence Project said in a statement.
“Michael and Kenny were robbed of their early adulthood. Everything that people do in their late teens and twenties — to college, start a career, meet their partner, start a family — has all been delayed for Michael and Kenny. They are remarkable and they will overcome what was taken from them, but they shouldn’t have to.”
Leaders at the University of Akron in Ohio agree.
The University of Akron Steps Up & Takes a Stand Against Injustice
After hearing about what happened to Sutton and Phillips, the University of Akron decided to give the men back a piece of their future that was stolen.
The school’s president, Gary L. Miller, reached out to them and offered them full-ride scholarships to the university.
Miller explained, “We are doing this as a way to present an opportunity ripped from their lives. An education gives you the opportunity for a fresh start.”
For Sutton, it’s a full-circle moment. He had a full-ride scholarship to Akron back in 2006 before his life exploded.
“It feels like a dream come true,” Sutton said of the second chance scholarship. “This was something I always dreamed about but being locked in prison for so long I didn’t think it could happen.”
He plans on pursuing a degree in business administration.
As for Phillips, he also plans to take the university up on its offer. He’s looking into taking business, sports management, or social work.
They will both start courses in the fall.
“God gave us back everything we thought we lost, double time,” said Phillips. “I gotta keep going strong not just for myself because I thought it was for myself, but for God. He was like, ‘No, I saved you for a reason, keep putting out the message.'”
By giving them the opportunity to pursue their education without the burden of student debt, the university has given them a chance to start fresh and build a new future for themselves. A future they both deserve.