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Robert Ware

Other Illinois exonerations with no crime
On September 16, 2017, 53-year-old Donald Phillips was found lying on the floor of the B pod in the Woodford County Jail in Eureka, Illinois. He had blood on his clothes and he appeared to be unconscious. A jail guard called his name and when Phillips stirred, the guard summoned an ambulance.

At the hospital, Phillips was treated for injuries that he said he sustained at the hands of another jail inmate, 40-year-old Robert Ware. Phillips said Ware attacked him and choked him.

Two days later, on September 18, 2017, Ware was charged with aggravated battery by strangulation for the attack on Phillips and obstruction of justice for wiping up blood on the floor of the cell.

He went to trial in Woodford County Circuit Court in December 2017. Courtney Soto, a corrections officer at the jail, testified that when she found Phillips on the floor, Ware, who was still in the pod, said Phillips had slipped and fallen on the floor.

Dr. John Pieniazek treated Phillips in the Eureka Hospital emergency room. He said Phillips told him he was “strangulated by being placed in a choke hold.” Dr. Pieniazek testified that Phillips had bruises and contusions around the neck, bloodshot eyes, blurry vision, nausea, and abrasions – all signs of someone who had been strangled.

The prosecution presented photos of Phillips to the jury. Dr. Pieniazek testified that Phillips had abrasions and bruises that were consistent with “a struggle to preserve life.”

Phillips testified that he was serving a one-year sentence for a domestic battery conviction.

He testified that on the morning of the incident, he and Ware argued about changing the television channel in the jail pod. Phillips was cleaning the shower area, and he took out a dustpan, toilet scrubber, and spray bottle from a cleaning bucket and put the items on one of the lunch tables. He said he was "angrily" confronted by Ware, who had picked up the toilet scrubber.

Phillips said he "snatched the toilet scrubber from [Ware's] hand and tried to smack [Ware] in the face with it." Phillips said they began fighting and Ware hit him in the forehead. Phillips said he went down very quickly but he "was still trying to fight” although he was “in a losing situation."

Phillips said that when Ware put him in a headlock, he tried to bite Ware’s thumb “to make him let go." Asked what he was trying to do during the course of the fight, Phillips said, "I guess I was trying to win the fight." Phillips said Ware held his left forearm across Phillips's throat.

"It was very difficult to breathe,” Phillips said. He described his breathing during this time as "very raspy." Phillips said he tried to fight back, but eventually just tried to get away after he realized he lost the fight. Phillips said he thought he "was going to die" because "there was no way that [he] was going to be able to break that stranglehold."

The prosecution presented a jail surveillance video which showed the two men grappling with each other.

The defense called Mitchell Lilienthal, an inmate who was housed in the same pod. Lilienthal testified that he did not see how the incident started, but he saw how Phillips kept trying to fight Ware. Lilienthal said that at least four or five times, Ware asked Phillips, "Are you good?”

Lilienthal said he understood that to mean "Are you done?" Lilienthal said he did not see Ware choke Phillips or hear Phillips make any choking sounds. Although Lilienthal said he could hear Phillips breathing hard, he said he never saw Ware's arm around Phillips's neck. He said Phillips kept scrambling around to "get back to the dominant position like you would in a fight," so Ware kept using force to hold him down so Phillips would not get back up.

Ware testified he was serving a 300-day sentence for a driving under the influence probation violation. He also said that he and Phillips had argued before the fight about changing the television channel. The fight began, he said, while he and Phillips were doing cleaning duties.

Ware said Phillips put a recently used toilet brush on one of the common area tables where the inmates in pod B regularly eat. Ware said the fight started when he "came up to [Phillips], and… said why would you put this nasty-ass toilet brush and [dustpan] on the table?"

Ware said he picked up the brush, but Phillips snatched it out of his hand and swung it at him. Ware testified that he "never got a chance to really react because at that point [Phillips]—rushed at me, and that's when a fight began."

Ware said he was trying to wrestle Phillips to the ground while Phillips was making a "growling sound" and trying to poke Ware's eyes. Ware said he felt a sharp pain and began punching Phillips before wrestling him to the ground.

Ware testified that he put his arm under Phillips's neck to gain control of the fight as Phillips was attempting to bite him. Ware said every time Phillips would attempt to bite him, Ware would put pressure on Phillips's neck to cut off circulation so he couldn't breathe. “I am trying to make him stop. But he kept growling, and he kept trying to fight."

Ware told the jury he tried to let Phillips go, but when he released his grip, Phillips tried to grab Ware’s leg and bite it. Ware said that every time Phillips tried to fight, he put pressure on his neck. He described the way he had his arm around Phillips's neck as more of a headlock, rather than a chokehold.

During cross-examination, Ware admitted he cleaned up the blood on the floor and falsely told the correctional officer that Phillips slipped and fell because he did not want to be labeled a "snitch." Ware explained he had his right arm around Phillips's neck like a headlock, but said, "I didn't really choke him," explaining he was instead applying pressure on the neck.

Upon further questioning by the prosecutor, Ware said, "I choked—I choked him for a second."

"Did you strangle him?" asked the prosecutor.

"No," Ware said. "I didn't do anything to strangle him."

During the jury instruction conference, the prosecution requested that a self-defense instruction be withdrawn because Ware "did not admit that he strangled Mr. Phillips."

Ware’s attorney, Woodford County Public Defender Andrew Lankton, replied that Ware “certainly fought back. He indicated that he showed him that he could choke him so he did it for some period of time. I do agree he maintained that he did not strangle him for any lengthy period of time."

In describing Ware's testimony, Judge Charles M. Feeney III said that Ware “admits that he put his arms around [Phillips's] head, neck area. He repeatedly stated—in fact, he initially stated he did choke him, and then he changed it to—he changed it to a headlock." Judge Feeney said the decision whether to issue a self-defense instruction was a close one because Ware admitted choking Phillips, but he also denied strangling him.

Judge Feeney interpreted Ware's testimony as a denial that he committed the offense, and concluded a self-defense instruction was impermissible. While deliberating, the jury asked several questions, one of them being whether self-defense could negate the charges.

In response, Judge Feeney told the jury that self-defense was not applicable.

On December 5, 2017, the jury convicted Ware of aggravated battery by strangulation, but acquitted him of obstructing justice. At the sentencing hearing, Judge Feeney told Ware, "I don't know why [the State] didn't charge Mr. Phillips. I agree with you that to the extent that contact was made to you that could be a crime…and to the extent that you are apprehensive, reasonably apprehensive of being hit again, or having some offense contact again, you had the right to defend yourself. You did that. And that, of course, would merit a self-defense instruction."

Judge Feeney also said, "I think it’s hard to look at this situation and not think, for instance, Mr. Phillips may have gotten what he had coming."

Nonetheless, Judge Feeney sentenced Ware to four years in prison.

On October 8, 2020, the Fourth District Illinois Appellate Court reversed Ware’s conviction and ordered a new trial. The appeals court ruled that the defense had established, through Ware’s testimony, all the elements necessary to allow for a self-defense instruction to the jury.

On March 4, 2021, Ware was released on bond pending a retrial. He went to trial a second time in September 2021. Although the evidence was virtually the same, Lankton was able to argue to the jury that Ware acted in self-defense. On September 23, 2021, the jury acquitted Ware.

On October 4, 2022, based on a petition filed by attorney Stephen Richards, Ware was granted a certificate of innocence. Richards then filed a claim for compensation with the Illinois Court of Claims. In January 2023, the Illinois Court of Claims awarded Ware $90,000, of which $18,812 was for Richards. Ware filed a federal lawsuit in September 2023 against the state of Illinois and Woodford County.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 5/31/2023
Last Updated: 2/9/2024
Most Serious Crime:Assault
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2017
Sentence:4 years
Age at the date of reported crime:40
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No