When Michael Sutton and Kenny Phillips went out for Phillips' birthday in May 2006, they never thought it would result in them being wrongfully arrested and incarcerated for 15 years.
"It went down the same night as my 18th birthday," Phillips, 34, said to News 5 Cleveland of that fateful night in Cleveland. "Everybody was like, 'Let's go out for your birthday. Let's celebrate.' But wrong place, wrong time."
The two friends had attempted murder convictions overturned last September and on Thursday, the University of Akron granted them full scholarships to earn their college degrees.
"It feels like a dream come true," Sutton said to News 5 Cleveland. "This was something I always dreamed about but being locked in prison for so long I didn't think it could happen."
Sutton, 35, was planning on attending the University of Akron in the 2006 school year before being incarcerated.
"I was on my way here. I never got to make it here," Sutton said to News 5 Cleveland. "I was coming to Akron for business administration. I had a full ride."
"We are doing this as a way to present an opportunity to two gentlemen who had their opportunity ripped from their lives," University of Akron President Gary L. Miller said to ABC News in a statement. "An education gives you the opportunity for a fresh start."
The Innocence Project, an independent nonprofit that works to release wrongfully convicted individuals from prison, represented Sutton in court and helped to get him released.
According to a statement sent to ABC News from the Innocence Project, on the night of their arrest in 2006, as Sutton and Phillips were on their way home with two friends, the passengers of a nearby vehicle fired shots into another vehicle, injuring the occupants. Two Cleveland officers pulled over Sutton, Phillips and their friends and detained them.
They were all tried for attempted murder, and the testimonies of the police officers were the principal evidence used against the four friends, per the Innocence Project. Sutton and Phillips were the only ones convicted and received 41 and 65 years in prison, respectively. Throughout their time in jail, they maintained their innocence.
"This is what happens when police officers get it wrong and refuse to acknowledge their mistake," Donald Caster, Sutton's attorney with the Innocence Project, told ABC News in a statement. "Michael (Sutton) and Kenny (Phillips) were robbed of their early adulthood. Everything that people do in their late teens and twenties — to college, start a career, meet their partner, start a family — has all been delayed for Michael and Kenny. They are remarkable and they will overcome what was taken from them, but they shouldn't have to."
In 2015, according to the Innocence Project, the Wrongful Conviction Project discovered two police officers possessed evidence that contradicted the two officers who detained Sutton and Phillips. The new information pointed to Sutton's and Phillips' innocence.
They were released in May 2021 and last September had their convictions overturned after spending a decade and a half in jail. A jury unanimously found Sutton and Phillips not guilty, according to the Innocence Project.
"Michael and Kenny are the reason why the people who do innocence work, which can be grueling, keep fighting on behalf of the wrongfully convicted," Caster said. "It has been an honor to be a small part of their story, and I am excited to see what lies ahead for them."
ABC News reached out to the Akron Police Department but have not yet received a response.
The Cuyahoga County Prosecutor's Office told ABC News in a statement that the Trial Court granted a new motion for a new trial, for which they were found not guilty, and that they respected the outcome.
"We respect the jury's verdict. We are excited to hear about the educational opportunities afforded to these two individuals. We hope they live a happy life and wish them success in their future endeavors," Lexi Bauer, Communications Manager for The Cuyahoga County Prosecutor's Office, said.
Sutton and Phillips both plan to start college in the fall.
"God gave us back everything we thought we lost, double time, "Phillips said to News 5 Cleveland. "I gotta keep going strong not just for myself, because I thought it was for myself, but for God. He was like, 'No, I saved you for a reason, keep putting out the message.'"