Cleared ex-con says he must sell artwork he did in prison

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Richard Phillips was an innocent man who sat in a drab prison cell for decades painting watercolors. But now that he's free, he says he must sell the artwork that kept him from going stir crazy.

Phillips, 72, was released from prison in March, after serving nearly 46 years for a murder he didn’t commit, making him the longest-serving wrongfully convicted prisoner in U.S. history, according to the Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan.

When he first entered prison in 1972, facing life behind bars, he told his wife to stop visiting, because he didn't want her and their two children to be burdened with him, and he didn't want to be reminded of his life on the outside.

To escape the daily despair of penitentiary life, Phillips took up painting. Through the years, the former Chrysler shipping and receiving clerk produced more than 400 pieces of art, mostly watercolors.

Phillips said he became attached to the paintings. But now, with no income, he says he's forced to sell them to try to make ends meet because the state has refused to pay him more than $2 million it owes him because of his wrongful conviction.

"I’ve got to sell my artwork to get some kind of means of living until these people from the state cut me a check and pay me for all the misery they’ve caused," he said.

The Community Art Gallery in Ferndale is hosting an exhibit featuring Phillips’ artwork. The exhibit, which kicked off Friday, runs through Feb. 18. 

Painting by Richard Phillips.

“I didn’t want to have to sell (the paintings), but I’m destitute, living in poverty,” Phillips said.

State lawmakers in 2016 passed the Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act, which was set up to pay exonerated ex-convicts $50,000 for each year they spent in prison. But previous Attorney General Bill Schuette fought most of those payouts, even in clear-cut cases where innocence was established.

Phillips is still fighting to get the $2.3 million he says the state owes him after Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy publicly acknowledged he'd been wrongfully convicted and said she would recommend he get paid from the exoneration fund.

After the Wayne County Prosecutor's Wrongful Conviction Unit worked to get Phillips released from prison, Worthy said, "The system failed him. There’s no question about it. This is a true exoneration."

Phillips' case was the first tackled by the Wrongful Conviction Unit. Since the unit was formed last year, it has secured exonerations for two prisoners, including Phillips, and has helped get cases dismissed with new trials granted for five others.

Painting by Richard Phillips.

Phillips said he doesn't understand why the state is fighting his claim.

"Kym Worthy got on TV and said I was innocent," Phillips said. "Nobody in the criminal justice system is even saying I'm guilty, but for whatever reason, the state is fighting my case. They owe me this money, and they refuse to pay it.

"There’s a new attorney general in office now (Dana Nessel), so I'm hoping they won't fight these cases like (Schuette) did," Phillips said. "Maybe the new people just need time to get settled in."

Assistant Wayne County Prosecutor Maria Miller said Worthy followed through on her promise to recommend Phillips be paid from the state wrongful conviction fund.

“In this case, the attorney general has a responsibility to undertake an independent review before determining the position the state will take with regard to a claim for compensation," Miller said.

Painting by Richard Phillips.

Phone calls to the Attorney General's office were not returned.

Phillips' attorney, Gabi Silver, said holding back payment "makes not one lick of sense. I’m hopeful that with the change in the administration there, there will be a little bit more compassion for these people and we will start compensating them.

"(Phillips) has nothing," Silver said. "He has no money. He’s (72) years old; what’s he going to do? It's just horrible."

Phillips, who lives in Canton Township, agreed he's in financial straits. 

"I’m too old; nobody’s going to hire an ex-convict at my age," he said. "Besides, I don’t see why I should have to break my neck when the state took half my life away from me. The state should pay for a nice house with a Cadillac at my disposal after what they did to me."

Financial difficulties are the latest in a long line of problems Phillips has dealt with since he was arrested in 1971 outside the popular 20 Grand nightclub on Detroit's west side and charged with murder.

Paintings from Richard Phillips' collection on display at the Community Art Gallery in Ferndale.

Phillips and co-defendant Richard Palombo were convicted in 1972 of the murder of Gregory Harris, based on testimony from the victim’s brother-in-law.

"I was just hanging out with two guys; one was a childhood friend, and I didn't even know the other guy (Palombo)," Phillips said. "Next I knew, I'm being snatched up by the police and charged with a murder I knew absolutely nothing about."

Phillips was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

He said adjusting to prison life wasn't easy.

"You've got to understand: They gave me natural life," he said. "I'm thinking my life is gone."

Phillips said he had enjoyed drawing prior to his arrest, so he started doing sketches in prison. 

"The art kept me busy; I would get lost in the painting for hours every day."

Paintings from Richard Phillips' collection on display at the Community Art Gallery in Ferndale.

Phillips said he had resigned himself to spending the rest of his life in prison. But then there was an unexpected break in his case.

During a parole board hearing in 2010, Phillips' co-defendant, Palombo, admitted that he and another man had killed Harris, and that he didn’t even know Phillips at the time of the murder.

The University of Michigan Innocence Clinic helped get Phillips’ conviction overturned and a new trial granted in August 2017. After the prosecutor's Conviction Integrity Unit reviewed the case, Worthy dropped the charges against Phillips.

On March 28, 2018, Phillips was officially exonerated. When Wayne County Circuit Judge Kevin Cox made the announcement, Phillips lifted his arms and said: "This is a good beginning."

But Phillips said it's been difficult adjusting to life on the outside.

"It’s stressful in in prison, but in many ways it's more stressful out here," he said.

"In prison, everything was organized. There was a routine: There was a time for chow, a time to go to bed. Out here, though, I have to wonder: How am I going to pay my rent? How am I going to buy food? All these things are quite stressful."

Mark Burton, curator of the Community Art Gallery, said he found out about Phillips' paintings from another artist.

Burton said he was able to quickly get Phillips space in the gallery when another artist canceled. 

A painting from Richard Phillips' collection on display at the Community Art Gallery in Ferndale.

"I looked at (Phillips') work, showed it to the manager, and we were both impressed," Burton said. "So we set (the show) up."

Phillips said he's "very excited" about the exhibit. "It's something I would've never anticipated in my wildest dreams."

Despite all he's been through, Phillips insists he's not bitter.

He said he cherishes his paintings, which he said represent his will to preserve his dignity after the wrongful conviction.

"It goes to show you: Something beautiful can come from something ugly," he said.
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