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After 45 years behind bars for murder, Richard Phillips is finally, officially exonerated

Sarah Cwiek
Michigan Radio

After spending 45 years behind bars for a murder he didn’t commit, Richard Phillips walked out of court officially a free man Wednesday.

Phillips was convicted of the 1971 murder of Gregory Harris in Detroit, but always maintained his innocence. He tried to appeal his conviction several times with no success, including a 1997 appeal that languished in the courts.

Things took a turn in 2010, when Phillips’ alleged co-defendant, Richard Polombo, told a parole board Phillips had nothing to do with the crime. Palombo said that he and the prosecution’s star witness, Fred Mitchell, had actually murdered Harris, and that Harris had conspired to frame Phillips in order to escape conviction after Detroit Police arrested him for another crime. Mitchell died in 1997.

That jumpstarted a stalled appeals process, and ultimately led to a new investigation that cleared Phillips of any involvement. After a judge overturned Phillips’ murder conviction late last year, the Wayne County prosecutor formally dismissed charges against Phillips Wednesday, finally putting an end to a legal and human drama that lasted well over 40 years.

As he dismissed the charges against Phillips, Wayne County Judge Kevin Cox told Phillips he’d seen both the “best and the worst the criminal justice system has to offer,” and praised the actions of everyone involved in freeing Phillips, because it “cried out that the case against you be dismissed.”

Cox also praised Phillips himself. “Whenever you’ve addressed the court, you have clearly been a very dignified gentleman in this courtroom,” he said. “I think you are a man of integrity and dignity in my observation, and I wish you nothing but the best in the future. I hope that other people can benefit from your situation and your story.”

Phillips said that it was a relief to finally get legal validation of his innocence on the record.

“It kind of touched me. Usually you don’t get judges to pay any kind of tribute to you,” Phillips said.

“I actually didn’t do the crime that they actually accused me and found me guilty of. So I had to endure that pain and suffering in prison until I ended up getting my papers. Now I’ve got my freedom papers.”

Despite all that’s happened to him, Phillips says he holds no animosity against the system or anyone. “The animosity has to be there before you have problems,” he said. “So if you have a rotten heart from the beginning, you’re going to have a rotten heart afterwards. My heart has never been rotten.”

Phillips thanked his lawyer, Gabi Silver, as well as the attorneys and law students from the University of Michigan Innocence Clinic who helped restart his appeal after receiving a tip about Palombo’s surprise 2010 confession.

"If you have a rotten heart from the beginning, you're going to have a rotten heart afterwards. My heart has never been rotten." --Richard Phillips

Phillips’ case is the first to be resolved by Wayne County’s new Conviction Integrity Unit. Prosecutor Kym Worthy started that unit to look into alleged cases of wrongful conviction after a series of high-profile Wayne County cases where convictions were overturned after evidence of innocence came to light.

Phillips’ case “is a good indication of what people can expect from this unit,” said CIU head Valerie Newman. “It’s a unique opportunity to be in this kind of position where you have the resources available to dig deep into a case. We really left no stone unturned in terms of our investigation.”

Worthy and Newman say the CIU will pursue overturning alleged wrongful conviction cases that meet two criteria: the defendant professes complete innocence, and there’s new evidence to suggest the defendant’s innocence that was never considered by a court.

Newman says the CIU has already received more than 200 requests to reopen cases, and is actively investigating 16 right now.

“I think today marks the beginning of a new era of cooperation between my outfit and this outfit, the Wayne County prosecutor’s office,” said UM Innocence Clinic attorney David Moran. “And I’m just very, very thankful of behalf of Mr. Phillips.”

Since he was first released on bond in December, Phillips says he’s been painting, attending church, and generally trying to get a grasp on the fundamentals of day-to-day life that have changed dramatically since 1971. Getting ID has been a particular challenge, he said.

Worthy says her office will recommend that Phillips receive financial compensation for the wrongfully convicted from the Michigan Attorney General’s office.

“I wish him well, but that sounds so hollow,” Worthy said.

“There’s nothing that I can say to bring back 40 years of his life. The system failed him. There’s just no question about it in this case. This is a true exoneration.”

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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