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Activists battle to exonerate Phillip Vance

A photo of Phillip Vance, who has been incarcerated in Minnesota since 2003 for a murder he says he did not commit. (Courtesy of freephillipvance on Facebook)

According to Jason Sole, an adjunct professor at Hamline University in the Criminal Justice and Forensic Science Department, Philip Vance is unjustly serving a life sentence for a murder he didn’t commit.

“He was just the fall guy, because he was here from Florida, didn't have a lot of friendships, didn't have a lot of relationships,” Sole said. “They didn't want to see who actually did it, they just wanted to pin it on him.”

Phillip Vance was arrested for murder in April 2002. Vance was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole for the murder of Khalid Al-Bakri during a robbery. He has served 20 years so far at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Stillwater, and will be eligible for parole in 10 more years.

A Dakota County jury found him guilty of first-degree felony murder during an aggravated murder and second degree intentional murder. But a dedicated group of investigators, lawyers, and activists have found dozens of problems with the case against Vance.

Vance was arrested by the now-defunct Metro Gang Strike Force, which was disbanded due to a staggering amount of corruption. Minnesota paid out more than $3 million in settlements for the Strike Force’s actions.

Sole says that Vance is a victim of the strike force, and that it was more concerned with finding a perpetrator than solving the case.

But Vance’s issues do not stop with the circumstances of his arrest. Vance accused the court of admitting evidence by witnesses that had been coerced or threatened. A number of the witnesses that testified against him have since recanted their statements.

Vance has been filing appeals for his case since 2006, and has maintained his innocence since his arrest.

Vance is the only person who was accused of being involved in the murder of Al-Bakri and is still incarcerated.

“[My co-defendants haven’t been locked up, man. [They] got their cases dismissed on the first day of trial. They’ve been free for 20 years,” Vance said.

Minnesota’s Conviction Review Unit says it will release the contents of its investigation in the coming month.

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