Granted retrial in ’71 murder, ex-inmate tastes freedom

Oralandar Brand-Williams and David Guralnick
The Detroit News

Richard Dan Phillips has waited more than 45 years to smell the crisp wintry air and see a bountiful snowfall as a free man.

Richard Phillips reacts to the cold and and the crowd of media waiting for him outside the detention facility.

Phillips, 71, has been locked up behind Michigan prison walls for a murder he says he didn’t commit. He was sentenced in October 1972 to a life term.

On Thursday, he walked out of the Dickerson Detention Center in Hamtramck to begin another journey: clearing his name.

“Right now the only thing I’m mostly thinking about is breathing fresh air. After 46 years, it’s been a long, long time, Phillips said Thursday. “I could have walked out of here barefoot and it would have felt just as good.”

Phillips was convicted, along with co-defendant Richard Palombo, of the murder of Gregory Harris in 1971, based on testimony from the victim’s brother-in-law. Seven years ago, Palombo told the parole board he and the brother-in-law killed Harris, and that he didn't even know Phillips at the time.

Richard Phillips walks arm in arm Thursday with attorney Gabi Silver after being released from the Dickerson detention facility in Hamtramck. Phillips’ release, after 45 years, was facilitated by the Michigan Innocence Clinic.

Phillips has been granted a new trial.

David Moran, a University of Michigan law professor and founder and co-director of the law school’s Innocence Clinic, says the clinic “received a tip” two years ago about Palombo’s statements about the murder.

Moran said Palombo told the Michigan parole board he met Phillips after Harris’ murder had already been committed.

Even though Phillips still faces a new trial, “it’s a great feeling to walk someone out of prison who’s been there all these years,” Moran said.

Phillips said he’s not angry, “just mostly disappointed in the system in such a way that it didn’t work for me.

“I never really thought this would happen,” he said. “I had resigned myself to probably dying in prison for something I didn’t do. But God has shone a light on me and he put some people in my life that has changed it. I’m appreciative of that.”

Moran said Phillips wouldn’t have had the chance to get a new trial “if Palombo hadn’t come clean.”

Maria Miller, spokeswoman for the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office, said Thursday her office has an appeal pending with the Michigan Court of Appeals to block a retrial for Phillips.

“The trial court erred as a matter of law, and abused its discretion in so doing, by granting a new trial in this first-degree murder case. First, co-defendant Palombo’s testimony is not newly discovered, but rather newly available,” the prosecutor’s office argued. “That is, he could have given the same testimony at the defendants’ joint trial in 1972, but instead declined to take the stand. ... Nothing prevented co-defendant Palombo from testifying at the defendants’ 1972 trial, and in any event his 2010 commutation board transcript is inadmissible hearsay.”

Moran spent most of Thursday with Phillips, who took him to temporary housing where the former inmate was given bags of clothing and other items donated by law school students who were hoping to give him a new start.

“Right now, I’m mostly just concerned about trying to get my life back together,” Phillips said.

Moran said Phillips doesn’t know where his family members are. When Phillips went to prison in the early 1970s, he was in his 20s and a father of two but he lost touch with his children and other relatives.

Phillips said he is grateful for the work the Michigan Innocence Clinic has done on his behalf: “They’ve done a miraculous job. And basically, I pretty much owe my life to them.”

Phillips found a light moment Thursday, quipping: “I’d like to say that I’m going to Disneyland but that’s out of the question.”

His new trial date is Feb. 5 in Wayne County Circuit Court.