Arizona Railroaded Him, Freed ‘Suspect’ Says

     PHOENIX (CN) — A man jailed for seven months as a suspect in Arizona’s I-10 freeway shootings sued the state and Maricopa County this week, claiming they falsified evidence because of public pressure to solve the case.
     At least eight cars were shot in the summer of 2015 along Interstate 10 and State Route 202 in Phoenix, and one girl was injured by shattered glass. Leslie Merritt Jr., then 21, was arrested on Sept. 18, 2015 and charged with aggravated assault, terrorism and other charges. He was jailed until April 19 this year, and three days later prosecutors said they were dropping all the charges.
     In his Sept. 13 lawsuit in Maricopa County Court, Merritt claims, among other things, that the state’s criminalists told a detective working the case that four bullet fragments recovered from the shootings with which he was charged were a “100 percent” match with Merritt’s gun.
     However, Merritt says, it is “a practical impossibility” to make a 100-percent certain match from a bullet fragment, plus, the Department of Public Safety aka the Highway Patrol knew from its own database that he had pawned that gun more than four hours before the fourth shooting happened.
     So, “under intense public pressure and media scrutiny to solve the I-10 Freeway Shooting Case,” Merritt says, the state changed its timeline, and claimed that the fourth car, a BMW, had been shot days earlier, with the bullet lodging in the tire’s sidewall.
     The BMW driver disagreed, “reiterating that he could tell that the tire deflated promptly upon being shot,” and in fact, the bullet went clear through the tire, piercing it twice, but the state arrested him anyway, Merritt says.
     A SWAT team terrified him by arresting him at gunpoint, and he was jailed for 215 days with no real evidence linking him to the shootings and mounting evidence that he was innocent, Merritt says.
     At his grand jury hearing, his says, the prosecutor withheld and distorted evidence, including the theory that a bullet had lodged in a tire’s sidewall for days before the tire deflated.
     “Defendants deliberately misled the grand jury that the driver of the vehicle in Incident D was ‘assuming or guessing’ or ‘unsure’ about when his BMW tire sustained damage,” Merritt says, though in fact, the driver was sure and the state was guessing.
     He also claims that Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, a defendant, or the county, “or both, deliberately suppressed material exculpatory evidence during the prosecution, including the second interview of the BMW driver in Incident D and license plate reader (LPR) data.”
     Montgomery or the county or both “recognized that the DPS Crime Lab had botched the identification” of the bullet fragments, so they hired an “internationally renowned expert in the area of firearm identification,” who told them in an April 14 report that the “results of the comparisons done by DPS were wrong and insufficient to constitute an identification,” the complaint states.
     Merritt was released on April 19. County attorneys filed a motion to dismiss the criminal charges on April 22, and the court did dismiss them on April 25. On April 29, at the request of the Arizona DPS, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms finished its lab report and also “found insufficient marks of comparison” between the “evidentiary bullets” and Merritt’s gun.
     Merritt says he has “suffered intensely and immensely from the false accusation which all defendants have levied against him,” and that even after the charges were dismissed, “at least one representative of DPS has publicly stated that DPS still believes that Merritt is the I-10 Freeway Shooter,” and that “Defendant Montgomery still makes public comments that Leslie Merritt Jr. is a suspect, although the evidence supporting his innocence is only getting stronger.”
     Merritt seeks damages for false arrest, false imprisonment, malicious prosecution, negligence, gross negligence, aiding and abetting tortious conduct, lost earnings, medical expenses and infliction of emotional distress.
     None of the parties could be reached by phone for comment Thursday afternoon.
     After Merritt was released and the county dropped the charges, Montgomery’s spokesman Jerry Cobb told The Arizona Republic: “Dismissing the charges without prejudice will provide us with the time needed in order to prepare the case for a possible refiling of charges.”
     Merritt is represented by David J. Don.

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