For decades, Richard Phillips has insisted upon his innocence in a 1971 murder in Detroit. Now 71, Phillips may finally be released from prison after his co-defendant admitted Phillips played no role in the crime. A judge recently dismissed his conviction, although he also granted prosecutors a new trial. Prosecutors in Wayne County, Michigan, have vowed to appeal the reversal.
It might have seemed like a hopeless case before the University of Michigan Law School’s Innocence Clinic took it on. For one thing, the conviction was largely based on the testimony of a witness who has since died.
At a parole hearing in 2010, however, Phillips’ co-defendant admitted his own role in the fatal shooting. At the same hearing, the co-defendant repeatedly said that Phillips had not been present at the time of the crime. In fact, if the co-defendant’s memory is accurate, he could not have been there.
“All I can tell you about Mr. Phillips is I met him on July 4, 1971. It was eight days after the murder,” the co-defendant said.
It wasn’t until 2014 — four years after that parole hearing — that the Innocence Clinic found out about the co-defendant’s statements and ordered a transcript. It also notified Phillips.
“He was shocked. He had spent 43 years at the time believing [his co-defendant] was as innocent as he was,” said the clinic’s director.
After ruling out possible collusion between the two, the Innocence Clinic presented the evidence to a judge, who granted a new trial.
Even though the co-defendant’s statement to the parole board was presumably under oath, the prosecutor’s office believes it is hearsay and cannot be used as evidence. Therefore, they plan to appeal the ruling.
The University of Michigan Law School’s Innocence Clinic has helped to free, or has exonerated, over a dozen people since 2009. To do so, they have exposed police errors, found new witnesses and brought in specialists to testify.