By David Schwartz
PHOENIX (Reuters) - A man formerly charged with a string of Phoenix-area freeway shootings has sued the state and county, claiming he was falsely arrested and imprisoned for crimes he did not commit, his attorneys said on Wednesday.
The lawsuit, filed in Maricopa County Superior Court on behalf of 22-year-old landscaper Leslie Merritt Jr, says that he was a victim of a "malicious prosecution" as authorities aggressively tried to pin him to four of the 11 shootings that terrorized area drivers last year.
"This case arises from the Defendants' false allegations against a young man whom they have wrongfully accused of being the notorious 'I-10 Freeway Shooter,'" the lawsuit said. "Defendants have produced no evidence that Leslie Merritt Jr was at or near the scene of any of the shootings."
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In addition, the lawsuit claims that the state of Arizona, Maricopa County and county Attorney Bill Montgomery were negligent and inflicted intentional emotional distress. It seeks unspecified damages.
State and county officials declined to comment on Wednesday on the pending litigation.
Merritt was arrested on Sept. 18, 2015, after an intense investigation into the shootings along a stretch of Interstate 10 that snakes through metropolitan Phoenix. One person, a teenage girl, suffered a minor injury during the shooting spree.
Arizona Governor Doug Ducey emphatically tweeted, "We got him!" shortly after Merritt's capture. Ducey is not named in the lawsuit.
The case began to unravel, however, when ballistic evidence prosecutors said linked Merritt to the spree was called into question by defense attorneys.
A county judge in April tossed out the 15 felony charges against Merritt when prosecutors asked that they be withdrawn without prejudice. Prosecutors can still refile the case at a later date.
Merritt was released after spending seven months in jail.
The investigation remains active and Merritt still is a suspect, state Department of Public Safety spokesman Captain Damon Cecil said on Wednesday.
Cecil said state troopers still have Merritt's 9 mm pistol, which investigators found at a local pawn shop.
Authorities at the time claimed bullets from the handgun matched fragments found at some of the crime scenes. But defense attorneys said the state's own expert said there was no match.
(Reporting by David Schwartz in Phoenix; Editing by Curtis Skinner, Bernard Orr)