Michigan Innocence Client Granted New Trial Half a Century Later
71-year-old Richard Phillips was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder and first-degree premeditated murder, along with co-defendant Richard Palombo, following the death of Gregory Harris in 1971. His conviction was based on the testimony of the victim’s brother-in-law, Fred Mitchell, at the time of trial. On October 25, 1972, Phillips was sentenced to concurrent life sentences without the possibility of parole.
According to court documents, Harris had been reported missing by his wife shortly after his abandoned car was discovered in a Detroit alley. Harris’ decomposed body was then found in Troy the following year and police arrested Mitchell, who they accused of organizing the killing. Mitchell also possessed the gun used to murder Harris. The other men were eventually charged as well, and Mitchell accused Phillips of participating in the act at trial in exchange for leniency.
In 2010, however, Palombo, in his late 60s, fully admitted that he and Mitchell were responsible for Harris’ homicide during a parole board hearing and said he didn’t even know Phillips at the time of the murder. “All I can tell you about Mr. Phillips is I met him on July 4, 1971. It was eight days after the murder,” Palombo told the board.
In 2014, after Palombo’s statement, The Michigan Innocence Clinic took on Phillips’ case, and Gabi Silver is currently serving as a lead trial counsel. The University of Michigan Law School’s Michigan Innocence Clinic, established in 2009, works to free those who have been wrongly convicted. Seventeen clients have been freed to date.
The clinic learned of what Palombo had said and immediately ordered a transcript. They also informed Phillips.
“He was shocked. He had spent 43 years at the time believing Palombo was as innocent as he was,” said clinic director David Moran, adding, “This is certainly the oldest case we’ve accepted by far.”
Moran ruled out any possible connection between Phillips and Palombo, and learned they had never been housed in the same prison or exchanged letters. Phillips’ conviction was thrown out on August 8th of this year and he was granted a new trial. He had already been incarcerated for nearly half a century.
Phillips’ retrial has been scheduled for February 2018. Until then, the defendant will be required to wear a GPS tether device, which will monitor his every move and greatly restricts where he’s able to travel to.
“Right now, all I’m mostly thinking about is just breathing fresh air,” Phillips said in a media interview shortly after being fitted with this ankle bracelet. “I would like to go to Disneyland, but that’s out of the question.”
Sadly, there were no relatives or friends outside waiting for Phillips. “We got disconnected when I first got locked up,” he said. “They have abandoned me…I pretty much lost everything…I plan on going from here and exploring and seeing what I can accomplish with my life from here on in.”
Of the efforts put forth by The Michigan Innocence Clinic, Phillips said, “They’ve done a miraculous job. I pretty much owe my life to them.”