A Detroit man is free after 45 years in prison after he was sentenced for a murder he never actually committed.
Richard Phillips, who will spend his 72nd birthday out of prison next month, has become the United States longest-serving exoneree after a judge threw out his conviction. When he was sentenced, Phillips was 27.
Phillips was an autoworker in Detroit when a man named Gregory Harris was reported missing by his wife. His abandoned car, with blood on the seats, was discovered in an alley on June 26, 1971. The following year, Harris’ body was found in Troy; he had been shot dead.
The police initially arrested Phillips’ brother-in-law, Fred Mitchell, who was accused of masterminding the murder and had the same type of gun used to kill Harris. Mitchell told police he met with another man, Richard Polombo, and Phillips to discuss Harris’ murder. For his testimony, Mitchell was not charged in connection with the murder and received leniency in other case. Phillips and Polombo were charged and convicted — and despite his pleas of innocence, in 1972, Phillips was sentenced to life with no possibility of parole.
As for Mitchell, he died in 1997.
However, in 2010, Polombo admitted to a parole board that Phillips had nothing to do with the murder. In fact, it was Mitchell and Polombo who actually killed Harris and then plotted to frame Phillips to get away with murder.
But Phillips was not made aware of this evidence until 2014, when someone informed Innocence Clinic, a group that investigates prisoners’ claims of innocence. The organization picked up his case and started trying to get him a new trial.
But even that was not without incident. After his 1972 conviction was overturned, the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office offered to release Phillips faster if he pleaded to second-degree murder.
Phillips refused to do so and said, “I would rather die in prison, than to admit to something I didn't do…and that still stands today.”
After three years of fighting, Phillips’s conviction was finally overturned on Dec. 14. However, he had to wait till March 28 to be deemed a free man.
Phillips is now almost 72 years old and the best years of his life have been wasted in prison. The U.S. criminal justice system has sorely failed him but despite that, the man said he bares “no animosity” toward his wrongful conviction.
“If you have a rotten heart before, you're going to have a rotten heart after,” Phillips said. “My heart has never been rotten.”
When he was sent to jail, Phillips had a son, daughter — who must now be in their late 40s — and an ex-wife. He is hoping to reconnect with them.
"I have a son, I have a daughter and I have an ex-wife, but those relationships were severed to the point where as I haven't seen my daughter or my son in over 47 years," Phillips said. “When I left the street they were 2 and 4…So now, in the event that they see this ... I would like them to get in touch so that I can renew those relationships. I'm not sure that it will happen, but I'm hoping it will.”
Phillips may also be eligible for $2.25 million — $50,000 compensation for each year he was wrongfully imprisoned.
"The most difficult part of my journey since being freed has been that I do not have financial assistance from the state," Phillips said. "Exonerees do not get very much compensation from the State of Michigan."
Phillips has been living on $80 worth of food stamps since December. Despite his extremely difficult life, he is looking ahead to the future.
"I am not bitter," he told CNN. "I was upset at first, but mistakes happen in this world. No life is perfect. Everybody has problems. It would be unimaginable for me to be upset because I had problems, because everybody has them."
Banner/Thumbnail credit: REUTERS, Stephen Lam