PHOENIX >> A man charged in freeway shootings that rattled Phoenix last year has been released from jail amid questions about the evidence that authorities say links him to the crimes.
The release of Leslie Merritt Jr. on Tuesday came after a judge reduced his bond to zero and said he can return to his home under electronic monitoring.
“I am just ready to go home and be with my kids,” Merritt said moments after walking out of jail.
The reduction of the bond — once $1 million — was a major victory as defense lawyers contend that ballistic tests cast doubt on the claim by authorities that Merritt was behind four of the freeway shootings.
“With all due respect your honor, there’s no evidence against him to show he’s responsible for this,” defense lawyer Jason Lamm said. “He is no more the I-10 shooter than, respectfully, you are.”
Merritt lifted up his shackled arms in celebration as he walked from the courtroom. After the hearing, family members hugged and shook the hands of defense lawyers.
Merritt has pleaded not guilty to drive-by shooting, aggravated assault and other charges.
Judge Warren Granville has imposed a gag order on lawyers in the case. As a result, lawyers said they could not discuss the evidence that prompted the shift in bond.
Arizona Department of Public Safety officials declined to comment, citing the gag order. The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office did not immediately return requests for comment.
Lamm told a crowd of reporters outside the courtroom that Merritt was elated and overwhelmed.
“Our client was branded public enemy No. 1, he was called a domestic terrorist and he’s been in jail in solitary confinement for seven months. Our reaction? We’re thrilled,” Lamm said.
The shootings caused panic on Phoenix-area freeways, where 11 vehicles were hit in August and September. The head of the Department of Public Safety said the shootings were the work of a domestic terrorist, and authorities heightened patrols and surveillance in pursuit of a suspect.
Detectives took Merritt into custody on Sept. 18, prompting Gov. Doug Ducey to declare “We got him!” on Twitter five minutes after the arrest.
In court the next day, Merritt adamantly denied shooting any cars, telling the judge, “I’m the wrong guy.”
His lawyers immediately began raising questions about the evidence, citing ballistics information and phone records they say provided an alibi for their client.
They also pointed to road rage shootings that happened on Phoenix-area freeways after Merritt was arrested, saying the cases were proof that the culprit was still out there.
Granville set a May 18 court date and told Merritt that it’s important for him to show up.
“I’ll be here sir,” Merritt said.