Exoneree Richard Phillips shares story with Michigan Law students

Photo courtesy of U-M Law

By Lori Atherton
U-M Law

Michigan Innocence Clinic client Richard Phillips spent 46 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. When he was exonerated in March 2018, Phillips became the longest-serving exoneree in U.S. history. “I’m a historical figure—nobody else in the U.S. has done more time in prison for a crime he didn’t commit,” Phillips told a Law School audience during an October 1 talk commemorating Wrongful Conviction Day.

Phillips, now 73, was convicted, along with co-defendant Richard Palombo, of conspiracy to commit murder and the first-degree premeditated murder of Gregory Harris in 1971, on the basis of testimony of the victim’s brother-in-law, Fred Mitchell. On October 25, 1972, Phillips was sentenced to concurrent terms of life in prison without parole for these convictions.

During a parole board hearing in 2010, Palombo admitted that he and Mitchell killed Harris, and that he didn’t even know Phillips at the time of the murder. The circuit court judge held an evidentiary hearing and vacated the conviction in August 2017. The Wayne County Prosecutor’s Conviction Integrity Unit then reviewed the case, and the prosecution dismissed all charges in March 2018.

“The very person who killed [Harris] got up on the stand and said that I did it,” Phillips said about Fred Mitchell, noting that he was convicted solely on the basis of Mitchell’s testimony and without any evidence. Phillips urged students, especially those who will become prosecutors, “to do the right thing as lawyers and not put innocent people in prison just to win cases.”

Phillips, who became a client of the Michigan Innocence Clinic in 2014, told law students how fortunate they are to be educated at the University of Michigan, and he encouraged them to aspire to be better lawyers than even their greatest teachers, “because that is the way to move forward as a country.” Phillips acknowledged his own lack of interest in education growing up—he’s a 10th-grade dropout—but took college classes in prison “to make the best use of his time.”

Phillips said getting acclimated to society after spending nearly 50 years behind bars “has been like going to Mars and coming back.” Though he now receives a modest amount of public assistance, he said he initially wasn’t provided any aid or benefits from the State of Michigan upon his release, and he has had to learn how to do everything, including shop, pay bills, and use a cell phone. “It’s been almost impossible [to acclimate] without assistance, but in the nine months since I’ve been in the free world, I’ve come a long way, because I have good people behind me and good support.”

Under a 2016 Michigan law, Phillips qualifies for compensation for the wrongfully convicted, which equals $50,000 for every year incarcerated. While the compensation—which Phillips has not yet received—is an acknowledgment of the state’s wrongdoing in his case, “no amount of money can pay for 50 years of your life,” Phillips said. “What mattered to me was stepping out of prison a free man.”

The Michigan Innocence Clinic, established in 2009, works to free those who have been wrongly convicted and focuses on cases where there is no DNA to test.
Eighteen clients have been freed to date by the clinic’s efforts.