Broke, but not broken, exoneree looks to his art to make a living

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By Linda Laderman
Legal News

Exoneree Richard Phillips could be forgiven if he allowed the 45 years he spent incarcerated for a murder he didn’t commit to embitter him. The 73-year-old Detroiter, served more time as an inmate than any other wrongfully convicted person in the U.S.

Instead, Phillips sees his future in the present.

“I’m living the future every day. I wake up every morning and the first thing I think is, ‘I’m free,’” said Phillips. “People ask me why I’m not bitter. I’m just not a bitter person.”

As exhilarating as it is to have his freedom after all these years, there are other experiences, that most people take for granted, that are daily challenges.

“It’s like taking someone to Mars and dropping them off,” Phillips said, as he looked at his new smart phone. “I still haven’t figured this thing out.”

Even so, Phillips did figure out how to make the time he spent in prison less hopeless. In an act of self-preservation, he taught himself to paint with watercolors as a diversion from the monotony of incarceration. Today his art serves another purpose – to help sustain him financially.

“I really didn’t want to sell my art. These paintings are my babies. I thought the state would do the right thing when I got out and give me my money. I don’t have a job and I have to make a living. Selling them is my only choice,” Phillips said, while waiting to answer questions from visitors to a January exhibition of his work in a Ferndale gallery.

On display was a selection of the more than 400 watercolors he created in prison.

“When you are exonerated, you leave prison with nothing. It’s not like it is for parolees who get counseling and support when they go,” said Phillips who was released in 2017 and exonerated in March 2018.

While he was an inmate, Phillips took advantage of every free moment he had to work on his watercolors, even if it meant using his cell as his art studio.

“I used the time when my bunkmate was out of our cell to paint. Since I was a ‘lifer,’ no one bothered me. Everyone knew that because lifers had nothing to lose, you didn’t mess with them,” said Phillips, who had an unblemished record in prison.

Soft-spoken and circumspect about his work, Phillips said, “I started painting because there was nothing else for me to do. I didn’t have any art background, but they were required to give us art supplies if we wanted to paint. So I did.”

A connection with a pen pal, who later became a trusted friend, offered her home as a space for Phillips to send and store his art. Phillips planned to retrieve his paintings if the truth about his alleged crime ever became public. If not, they would remain his legacy.

“I never thought I’d get out. I would have rather died in prison than admit to something I didn’t do,” said Phillips.

Though the odds of Phillips being released from prison seemed insurmountable, he managed to find a way to send his paintings to a trusted friend.

“I was able to make mailing containers out of cardboard toilet paper boxes. I used them to send my paintings to my pen pal in upstate New York, where she stored them for me. After I was released I took a bus there to get them. Some were still in the original boxes I used for mailing,” Phillips said. “I would have kept the work, but there is a prison rule that once you finish an art project, you have to send it out. Otherwise it’s considered excess property and they’ll take it, destroy it or burn it. And I wasn’t about to let that happen.”

Tucked away in his pen pal’s house were paintings that depicted icons of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s, jazz musicians, juicy bowls of fruit, and even pets. Though none of those subjects were available to him, he was able to create his watercolors from images he’d seen in books and magazines.

“My first painting was named ‘Sorrow,’ and each painting I did after that started with an ‘S.’ It helped me remember them. For inspiration, I studied pictures I saw in magazines and just painted from memory,” Phillips said, as if creating a significant body of work while an inmate in 11 different Michigan prisons was an ordinary occurrence.

In fact, none of the events surrounding Phillip’s conviction and subsequent exoneration resemble anything that could be labeled as ordinary.

Several years before his exoneration, the University of Michigan Law School’s Innocence Clinic received a questionnaire from Phillips.

Just as the clinic was looking into his case, it received information from a person who wished to remain anonymous. The claims that were made led the clinic’s co-founder, University of Michigan Law School professor David Moran, and his staff to investigate further.

“Five years ago we received information revealing that Phillips’ co-defendant, Richard Palombo, had gone to the parole board and admitted what really happened. We got a hold of the transcript of Palombo’s 2010 hearing before the parole board. The transcript revealed that Palombo admitted Phillips had been framed by the real murderer, Fred Mitchell, who with Palombo, murdered Gregory Harris,” Moran said in a phone interview.

“Palombo had every reason not to admit this because the people on the parole board were telling him this wasn’t helping his case. If he wanted to get clemency, he had to fess up and admit the prosecution was right. He said, ‘No I was involved, but Phillips wasn’t. I didn’t even meet him until a week after Harris’ murder.’”

A meeting with Palombo and attorneys from the Innocence Clinic was consistent with what the transcripts showed, that Phillips had served nearly five decades in prison for a murder he didn’t commit.

“We met with Palombo and found him to be completely credible and clear on what had happened. Then we went to see Phillips, because sometimes these guys help each other out and established that they hadn’t been in contact for 35 years – the last time they were in the same prison together,” Moran said. “Richard was shocked, because he believed Palombo had also been framed by Mitchell. Until we told him, he had no idea that Palombo was involved.”

Not long after the meetings with Palombo and Phillips, Moran moved for a new trial for Phillips, which was granted in 2017. Notwithstanding the additional evidence, the prosecutor’s office filed an appeal.

“The prosecution filed an appeal, but then the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office’s Conviction Integrity Unit came on board and put a hold on the appeal while they reinvestigated the case,” Moran said. “They found additional evidence that Mitchell (who by now was deceased) was lying. They concurred with us that Phillips was wrongly convicted, so they dropped the charges, which led to a formal exoneration in March 2018.”

Through media coverage, the legal community and the community at large, Phillips is garnering widespread recognition for his collection of watercolors, but he has yet to make a maintainable living from his art.

“Richard is doing incredibly well for someone who was in prison for 45 years. He is a brilliantly talented artist who is having to sell his art that he labored over in prison to make ends meet. He needs to be compensated,” Moran said, referring to the more than $2 million owed to Phillips, by the state, for the years he spent in prison.

“Now we’re told that the legislature just didn’t allocate enough money to the compensation fund. I am certainly hopeful that the governor, in her budget message, will call for full funding for Richard and others who have been wrongfully convicted. I hope the legislature will quickly act.”

Detroit defense attorney Gabi Silver, who is representing Phillips, pro bono, for his post-exoneration interests, shares Moran’s concerns.

“In addition to the compensation issue, ‘A Go Fund Me’ page that was established for him, is being used as a justification to deny him additional Social Security benefits,” Silver said. “Social Security is demanding that he repay the small amount of money they paid him. He’s not in a position to do that.”

From finding Phillips a place to live, to helping him sort through the opportunities to sell his art, Silver has gone above and beyond her responsibilities as his attorney.

“I have been lucky in my practice so it feels good to be able to help in that way. Besides, Richard just kind of puts you in the middle of his life, and you’re stuck. There’s nothing you can do about it,” said Silver with a laugh.

Phillips nodded in agreement when Silver said, “I’ve never had a case like this where I’ve become friends with a client. But then there are not many people like Richard. He just is special.”