The Next 400: Unfair sentences and wrongful convictions disproportionately affect African Americans

20-year-old Leo Santiago Chavez convicted.
20-year-old Leo Santiago Chavez convicted.(Source: Raycom images)
Updated: Nov. 13, 2020 at 7:31 PM EST
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

CLEVELAND, Ohio (WOIO) - The statistics show wrongful convictions and sentencing disparities largely affect African Americans.

Roberta Sutton said her son is on the wrong end of that statistic.

“I just keep fighting for him because God gave him to me and not to them. And like I told him, I’m never going to give up. As long as I have breath in me, I am going to keep fighting for you until the day you come out of there.”

In May 2006, Michael Sutton was preparing to graduate. He had a scholarship to the University of Akron.

Days before graduation, he went out with his friends to celebrate at a downtown Cleveland club.

After the club, Sutton and his three friends, Kenny Phillips, Deante Creel, and Akeem Tidmore, stopped at a gas station on East 55th and Woodland in Cleveland.

According to testimony, Sutton said as they were driving out of the gas station, someone fired shots into a dark blue vehicle right in front of him. Two people in the car were severely injured.

Sutton said he pulled his car over so police could pursue the shooter, not knowing they were actually pulling him over as the suspect.

The passengers in the car took off running, and police caught them immediately.

A judge initially sentenced Sutton to 46 1/2 years in prison for attempted murder. In a direct appeal, a judge reduced the sentence to 41 1/2 years.

Attorney Donald Caster of the Ohio Innocence Project is determined to overturn Sutton’s conviction.

“This is a case where it’s pretty clear based on the new evidence that’s been assembled that Michael Sutton and Kenny Phillips are innocent.”

According to Caster, statements made by officers on the scene that night that would have helped to prove Sutton’s innocence were never shared with the jury.

He also pointed out there was no physical evidence to link Sutton to the crime.

“The police never found the gun that Michael and Kenny supposedly had even though they were caught pretty quickly. Even though police spent a lot of time searching for the gun, so it was always a weak case.”

“Michael is innocent, and the criminal justice system is designed to protect itself. The judges and the courts and the legislators throw up barrier after barrier after barrier to correcting the mistakes the system made,” said Caster.

Lacretia and Morgan Sutton are Michael’s older sisters.

“I knew for myself automatically he didn’t do this. He was just never that kind of kid. Never say never, but he didn’t do this,” said Lacretia Sutton.

“He’s been in there so long …and he was a young guy going in there, and he was protecting him. And he turned around, and now they are calling him big hommie,” said Morgan Sutton.

He went into prison as a teenager and is now 33. His mother said the day her son was sentenced is on constant replay in her mind.

“When they hit that mallet, and they said 46 and a half years, my son almost passed out,” said his mother.

Roberta Sutton is one of many Black mothers mourning the loss of a child to the system.

The statistics are staggering: Blacks are imprisoned at a higher rate than any other race.

When Black men and white men commit the same crimes, black men receive a sentence 20 percent longer, according to the U.S Sentencing Commission in 2017.

“We know the statistic about wrongful incarceration. We know the United States has a huge disproportionate share of incarcerated people around the world. And we know that Black people and again Black men make up the lion’s share of those incarcerated in the United States,” said Caster.

Sutton’s fate is in the hands of the Ohio 8th District Court of Appeals, which has the power to grant Sutton a new trial.

“Two police officers have made it very clear now that the primary officer who testified at trial weren’t where they were at trial and couldn’t have seen what they said they saw. Unfortunately, and sadly for Michael and Kenny, it was years before these officers came forward and testify and make it right,” said Caster.

Alton Ray shared time in prison with Sutton. He served his time and now operates his own business. He said Sutton has always proclaimed his innocence.

“It’s hard to not look at the black and white, which the law is supposed to go by; the black and white. You got the evidence that’s pointing this man has been wrongfully convicted,” said Ray.

“Why can’t you just go and get the right person. They know, they know who it was, and it’s sad. That’s why I say the justice system needs to be changed,” said Roberta Sutton.

There is something that gives Roberta Sutton solace.

“He’s there for protection because a lot of his friends is gone. And he could have been one of them,” said his mother.

As the hours, days, months, and years ago by, the Sutton family remains hopeful.

They hope the tears of pain will turn to tears of joy when her son returns home.

“My son never had a case; never. And you give him 46 and a half years. And you send a young little boy to a big man’s prison. And he had to fend for himself, and I couldn’t be there to protect him,” said his mother.

We reached out to the prosecutor’s office, and they said they have no comment about a pending case.

Copyright 2020 WOIO. All rights reserved.