Murder charges dropped against man who served 45 years
Richard Dan Phillips waited anxiously Wednesday in the hallway of Frank Murphy Hall of Justice. It was a day he had hoped would come for more than four decades.
Phillips, 71, politely answered numerous reporters’ questions while waiting to be asked into the courtroom of Judge Kevin J. Cox in Wayne County Circuit Court. There, all charges against Phillips stemming from a 1971 homicide were dismissed — after he spent 45 years in prison for a crime he insists he didn’t commit.
“Freedom is giving me the hope that no matter what happens in the future, this is a good beginning,” Phillips said.
Dressed in a blue suit and wearing a big smile, Phillips told reporters he kept up the hope that one day he would be free and held steadfastly to a promise to himself that he would not admit to the crime. He said he would “rather die in prison than admit to a murder I did not commit.”
On Wednesday, Phillips permanently became a free man, free from the worries of having to go back to trial, as Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy dismissed the charges against him, saying Phillips was wronged by the judicial system.
“There’s nothing that I can say to bring back 40 years of his life. The system failed him. There’s no question about it,” the prosecutor said during a news conference Wednesday. “This is a true exoneration. Justice is indeed being done today, but there’s nothing that we can do ... to bring back those years of his life.”
Phillips, who was sentenced in October 1972 to life in prison, was convicted along with co-defendant Richard Palombo of the murder of Gregory Harris, 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.
Phillips, who attended Central High School in Detroit, lived in the city and was an auto worker for Chrysler at the time he was sent to prison, said his lawyer, Gabi Silver.
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 and took up Phillips’ cause.
Moran said Phillips has served the longest sentence of anyone to be exonerated in the U.S. and that he wouldn’t have had the chance to be freed “if Palombo hadn’t come clean.”
Moran told the judge at Wednesday’s hearing: “Mr. Phillips is innocent. His exoneration is due.”
Telling Phillips that he had “seen the worst and best of the criminal judicial system,” Cox told the former inmate he was “thrilled” to be the judge handling his exoneration.
“I think you are a man of integrity and dignity based on my observation,” the judge said. “I wish you the best.”
Although he undeservedly spent 45 years behind bars, Phillips said he’s not bitter. He said he still believes in the judicial system and that “it works (though) not fast enough in my case.”
Phillips lives in Canton Township and recently began attending Renaissance Unity Church, where he shares his tragic story so others can learn from it, according to a news release from Worthy’s office.
Phillips said he paints with watercolors and has received an offer to share his story in a book. He said his priority is to continue getting his new life settled, which includes trying to find his adult daughter and son as well as getting a driver’s license and other identification.
“I was forced to be dissociated with my children. It wasn’t my choice. I wasn’t a deadbeat dad,” he said. “They threw me in prison and took me away from my life. So now I have to try and get it back together.”
Worthy said Phillips’ case is the first one reviewed by her office’s newly formed Conviction Integrity Unit, which reviews cases involving claims of wrongful conviction.
“The important work of this unit exemplifies the commitment that the WCPO has to correct any wrongful convictions,” Worthy said. “Our mission is always to make sure that justice is served. We have a duty to the public, crime victims’ families and to the accused, to make sure that we have prosecuted and convicted the correct person.”
Valerie Newman, a former state appellate attorney, said her division “left no stone unturned” in its investigation into Phillips’ case and “found things that went to his innocence.”
Worthy said she will be making a recommendation to Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette on behalf of Phillips to receive state funds for the wrongfully convicted. Under the Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act, exonerated individuals can request compensation through the Michigan Court of Claims. They are paid $50,000 a year for each year they spend in prison.
Silver, Phillips’ attorney, said she was “infuriated” that a prosecutor from the attorney general’s office attended the parole board hearing during which Palombo made his statements clearing Phillips, yet said nothing.
“There was this prosecutor in the AG’s office listening to this exculpatory evidence and that lawyer never revealed that (information) to anyone,” she said. “It sat for four years (until Innocence Clinic got a tip about it). You have a duty to let people know.”
Andrea Bitely, a spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s Office, did not immediately respond Thursday to a request for comment.
Silver said at the news conference announcing the decision to drop the charges against Phillips: “These are the kinds of cases that scare me the most. It’s nice to see the injustice was corrected.”