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Richard Phillips

Other Oakland County, Michigan exonerations
At 10:42 a.m. on September 6, 1971, two armed men robbed a party store in Ferndale, Michigan. The owner, Ioannis Theodoropoulos, and his 12-year-old son, Pete, said one of the men was white. The other was a Black male, about 5 feet 8 inches tall, with brown eyes, a small Afro, and a light complexion. The robbers fled with $10 from the cash register.

Later that day, police arrested 25-year-old Richard Phillips and Fred Mitchell at a hotel in Detroit on suspicion of drug possession. Although no drugs were found and neither man was charged with a drug crime, Mitchell apparently told police during his interrogation that Phillips was involved in the robbery in Ferndale along with 23-year-old Richard Palombo.

On September 8, Ioannis Theodoropoulos and his son identified Phillips and Palombo as the robbers. At the time, Phillips was 6 feet tall and had a very tall Afro.

The Oakland County Prosecutor’s Office said the charges against Phillips would be dismissed if he took and passed a polygraph examination. During a pre-test interview, Phillips said Palombo and Mitchell committed the robbery. The polygraph examiner said Phillips was deceptive during the examination when he denied involvement in the robbery, and Phillips was not released.

On the eve of Phillips’s trial, his attorney filed a notice of an alibi defense—that a maid at the hotel had awakened Phillips at 11 a.m.—minutes after the robbery and at least 10 miles from the crime. However, the maid could not be located.

On November 1, 1971, Palombo pled guilty to the robbery and was sentenced to 15 to 22½ years in prison.

On November 5, 1971, Phillips went to trial in Oakland County Circuit Court. Ioannis Theodoropoulos and his son identified Phillips as the Black man who robbed the store.

Palombo testified for the defense and said that Phillips was not involved. However, Palombo refused to identify who his accomplice was. He was found in contempt of court and still refused to identify his accomplice.

On November 9, 1971, the jury convicted Phillips of armed robbery. He was sentenced to seven to 22½ years in prison.

On March 3, 1972, a highway maintenance worker found the body of 21-year-old Gregory Harris in a cluster of trees about 20 feet from the road near 19 Mile Road and Dequindre Road near Troy, Michigan. Harris had last been seen June 26, 1971 when he left his home in Detroit to buy cigarettes. The following day, his wife had found his car abandoned and with what appeared to be bloodstains on the front seat. Police had not taken any samples or photographs and had returned the car to Harris’s wife, who had cleaned the car.

After Harris’s body was identified, an autopsy revealed he had been shot in the head.

On March 15, 1972, less than two weeks after Harris’s body was found, Mitchell was arrested on charges of an unrelated armed robbery and carrying a concealed weapon. He told the arresting officers he wanted to speak with detectives.

Mitchell had been convicted previously of manslaughter and was Harris’s brother-in-law. Mitchell had been considered a suspect in Harris’s disappearance since shortly after Harris went missing. In July 1971, not long after Harris disappeared, police stopped Mitchell and confiscated a .22-caliber pistol from him.

In March of 1972, just days after Harris’s body was found, Mitchell told the detectives that Palombo and Phillips had killed Harris. Mitchell said he had met Palombo when they both were in prison—Mitchell on the manslaughter conviction and Palombo on the Ferndale armed robbery conviction. At the time that Mitchell was interviewed, Phillips also was in prison for the armed robbery conviction.

Days later, Palombo and Phillips were charged with first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder.

They went to trial in Wayne County Circuit Court in September 1972. The prosecution presented evidence that firearms analysis had linked the .22-caliber pistol confiscated from Mitchell in July 1971 to two bullets recovered from Harris’s body.

Mitchell’s testimony was the only evidence implicating Palombo and Phillips. During four hours on the witness stand, Mitchell said he knew what happened because Palombo and Phillips told him in great detail. He said Palombo had been testing him to see if he could keep quiet. Mitchell claimed that if Palombo deemed him acceptable, he would put in a good word for Mitchell with Palombo’s cousin, Jackie Fanelli, who was involved in organized crime.

On October 5, 1972, the jury convicted Palombo and Phillips of first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder. They were both sentenced to life in prison without parole.

The Michigan Court of Appeals upheld their convictions in 1975.

In 1989, Palombo filed a petition for a hearing on a motion for new trial claiming that his trial defense lawyer had provided an inadequate legal defense for failing to discover that the prosecution had made a deal with Mitchell for leniency on the armed robbery charge—a deal that had not been disclosed to the defense prior to trial. Mitchell had denied getting a deal when he testified. After a hearing, Palombo was granted a new trial when the trial judge concluded the prosecution had failed to disclose the deal.

When Phillips learned of that ruling, he filed a similar motion for a new trial, which was granted. However, in 1993, the Michigan Court of Appeals reversed the decisions and ruled that there was insufficient evidence of prosecutorial misconduct.

In 1997, Phillips filed a motion for relief from judgment. Eleven years later, in 2008, he was granted a new trial by a judge who concluded that Phillips’s trial defense attorney had provided an inadequate legal defense. The judge ruled on only one issue raised in the motion, finding that the lawyer had failed to request a cautionary jury instruction on the issue of accomplice testimony. Two years later, after the prosecution contended it had not received notice of the ruling, the order granting a new trial was reissued. The prosecution appealed, and, in 2010, the Michigan Court of Appeals again reversed the ruling granting a new trial.

In August 2010, Palombo appeared before the Michigan Department of Corrections Parole Board to testify in support of a petition for clemency he had filed. After denying involvement in the crime for nearly 40 years, Palombo admitted under oath that he and Mitchell had committed the murder. Palombo also admitted that he and Mitchell committed the Ferndale robbery.

Asked about Phillips’s involvement in the murder, Palombo said Phillips wasn’t there. “I did not know Mr. Phillips at the time,” Palombo said. “And as far as I know, he had nothing to do with anything.”

Palombo said Mitchell knew he could pin it on Phillips because after Harris was killed, Mitchell had falsely implicated Phillips in the Ferndale robbery. In fact, Mitchell had committed the robbery, Palombo said.

Charles Schettler, Jr., a Michigan assistant attorney general representing the prosecution, repeatedly questioned Palombo about why Mitchell falsely accused Phillips and suggested that Palombo was lying. “I have no idea about that,” Palombo said. “All I can tell you is that I met Mr. Phillips on July 4, 1971. It was eight days after the murder.”

Pressed further, Palombo said, “All I know is that they [Mitchell and Phillips] got picked up together for an armed robbery and Mr. Phillips was convicted of the armed robbery and Fred Mitchell told [Phillips] he was the one who committed the armed robbery. And then [Fred] turned around and implicated him in the murder.”

Palombo added, “I’m trying to tell you the truth and I’m trying to be honest and precise with what I can remember. It’s been 39 years.”

In 2014, Palombo’s attorney approached the Michigan Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School and reported Palombo’s testimony. The clinic then visited Phillips, who had steadfastly maintained over the years that both he and Palombo were innocent.

Phillips agreed to take a polygraph examination. On December 8, 2015, he took the examination, and the examiner concluded Phillips was truthful when he denied any involvement in the crime.

In 2016, the Michigan Innocence Clinic filed a supplemental motion for relief from judgment based on Palombo’s sworn testimony as well as the result of the polygraph examination.

On August 8, 2017, Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Kevin Cox granted the motion. On December 12, 2017, Judge Cox granted bond for Phillips, and he was released on December 14, 2017—more than 45 years after his October 5, 1972 conviction.

In January 2018, Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy created a conviction integrity unit and hired former Michigan State Appellate Defender Office attorney Valerie Newman to head the office. During a review of the case, Newman discovered further evidence that Mitchell had lied at the trial when he talked about meetings with Palombo and Phillips prior to the murder. Prison records showed that Palombo had been released from prison on parole one day before Harris’s murder, and thus could not have met with Mitchell and Phillips as Mitchell had testified.

On March 28, 2018, following a review of the evidence, the prosecution dismissed the charges and exonerated him. Worthy issued a statement saying, “It has been determined that the case against Mr. Phillips was based primarily on the false testimony of the main witness in the case….The system failed him. Nothing that I can say will bring back years of his life spent in prison. Justice is truly being served today. We will recommend to the Michigan Attorney General’s Office that Mr. Phillips receive wrongful conviction compensation.”

In May 2019, the state of Michigan awarded Phillips $1,565,479 in compensation.

The Michigan Innocence Clinic continued to investigate the Ferndale armed robbery, and a joint investigation by the Conviction Integrity Units in the Wayne County and Oakland County Prosecutor’s Offices commenced.

At the conclusion of the investigation in September 2022, Beth Morrow, the head of the Oakland County Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU), issued a statement noting that the identifications of Phillips by Ioannis Theodoropoulos and his son were problematic because they were white and Phillips was Black. Such cross-racial identifications have been shown to be erroneous because of the difficulty that white people have in identifying Black suspects.

“Based on the evidence of his innocence in the murder case, the troubling cross-racial identification, and Richard Palombo clearing him in the robbery, the Oakland County CIU finds newly discovered material evidence supports that Richard Phillips is innocent of the 1971 Oakland County robbery,” Morrow said in the statement.

A petition was filed jointly by the Oakland CIU and the Michigan Innocence Clinic seeking to vacate Phillips’s armed robbery conviction. “[T]he parties agree that the sum of the evidence makes a compelling showing of Mr. Phillips’s innocence,” the petition said.

On September 28, 2022, Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Jacob Cunningham granted the petition, vacated the conviction, and the charge was dismissed. In 2023, Phillips filed a separate claim for state compensation for this wrongful conviction and he was awarded $735,088.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 10/4/2022
Last Updated: 12/12/2023
Most Serious Crime:Robbery
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1971
Sentence:7 to 22 1/2 years
Age at the date of reported crime:25
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Perjury or False Accusation
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No