National News

Authorities sued over arrest in Phoenix's freeway shootings

Posted September 14

— A landscaper who had been charged in a string of freeway shootings that kept Phoenix motorists on edge for weeks filed a lawsuit claiming that authorities falsely accused him when they knew their evidence was weak.

Lawyers for Leslie Merritt Jr. filed the lawsuit Tuesday accusing state crime lab workers of assuring detectives that they were positive that Merritt's handgun was used in four of the shootings.

It also alleges that prosecutors misled grand jurors about the reliability of the ballistics evidence.

Lawyers for the 22-year-old Merritt said authorities pursued charges even though they knew his handgun was at a pawn shop during the last four shootings.

The charges against Merritt were dismissed at the request of prosecutors after another ballistics expert found the Arizona Department of Public Safety's crime lab had come to a faulty conclusion and noted the bullets from the four shootings couldn't be "excluded or identified" as having come from Merritt's gun.

Merritt, who insisted he was innocent, spent seven months in jail before his release in April.

A total of 11 shootings occurred on Phoenix-area freeways in late August and early September of 2015. No one was seriously injured when eight cars were hit with bullets and three others were struck with projectiles such as BBs or pellets. The only injury occurred when the ear of a 13-year-old girl was cut by glass.

No one else has been arrested in the case and an investigation remains open.

Merritt's lawsuit doesn't specify the amount of money he is seeking. His attorneys previously said he was seeking $10 million from the state, Maricopa County and the office of County Attorney Bill Montgomery.

Montgomery and the Department of Public Safety declined to comment on the lawsuit.

"We all need the police. We all recognize that," said David Don, one of Merritt's attorneys. "This is not a case against the police. It's a case against poor police work."

The lawsuit also alleges that detectives changed the timeline of the last shooting to fit their theory that a bullet from Merritt's gun got lodged in the sidewall of a tire of a BMW that later deflated.

DPS is accused in the lawsuit of suggesting to the BMW driver that he was incorrect in saying when the shooting occurred, but the driver stood by his account.

The lawsuit said the gouge marks on the tire showed the bullet passed immediately through the tire and caused it to deflate quickly.

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Follow Jacques Billeaud at twitter.com/jacquesbilleaud. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/jacques-billeaud.

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