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Former Phoenix-area freeway shootings suspect files lawsuit against state, county

Leslie Allen Merritt Jr., waits to make his initial appearance before a judge at the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2015, in Phoenix. The landscaper is the suspect in a series of Phoenix freeway shootings and was arrested Friday after trying to sell a gun at a pawn shop. (Rob Schumacher/The Arizona Republic via AP, Pool)

PHOENIX — A man once arrested and charged with freeway shootings that terrified Phoenix-area drivers has filed a lawsuit against the state of Arizona and Maricopa County officials.

Lawyers for Leslie Merrit Jr. announced the civil suit Wednesday morning, citing malicious prosecution. Court papers were filed late the night before.

Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery said his office is working to figure it out if it will handle the defense or if it will be handled by outside counsel.

In March, Merritt’s lawyers filed a $10 million claim, generally a precursor to a lawsuit.

Merritt was taken into custody in September 2015 after an aggressive investigation, weeks after the shootings mostly along Interstate 10 had begun. Of the 11 shootings, Merritt was accused of four.

By April 2016 all charges, which ranged from aggravated assault to drive-by shooting to disorderly conduct, were dropped.

Montgomery spokesman Jerry Cobb said that the office filed a motion to dismiss the charges, which include carrying out a drive-by shooting, without prejudice against Leslie Merritt Jr.

Of the 11 shootings, Merritt was charged with four after the Department of Public Safety said forensic evidence linked Merritt to a gun used in some of the shootings.

Merritt’s attorney Jason Lamm used cellphone records to show his client was at home Aug. 29, the time of the second shooting Merritt was suspected of.

Lamm also said Merritt’s gun was in the pawn shop at the time of the Aug. 30 shooting.

Merritt professed his innocence from nearly the moment he was arrested. His nighttime capture in Glendale prompted Gov. Doug Ducey to tweet out the news shortly afterward.

Merritt’s lawyers sought to depose Ducey about that tweet. However, Ducey is not named in the lawsuit.

“We made a conscious decision not to make him a defendant in this lawsuit,” Lamm said. “The tweet was wrong. We believe it’s something that shouldn’t have been done and, respectfully, we believe that, in hindsight, if the governor had the opportunity to do it over again, he wouldn’t have sent that tweet.

“At the end of the day, it comes down to an error in judgment.”

Merritt was released from jail after a judge reduced his bond — once set at $1 million — to zero. He was allowed to return home under electronic monitoring.

After the charges were dismissed, DPS Director Frank Milstead said he still believed there was enough evidence that pointed to Merritt as the “correct suspect.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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