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Richard Phillips

Convicted of murder in Elizabeth City County (now the independent City of Hampton), Virginia, in February 1900, Richard Phillips, a well-known black athlete, was exonerated thirty years later after his trial defense attorney presented the governor with new evidence of Phillips’ innocence.

On January 16, 1900, Private Joseph New was killed by a gunshot wound during a physical quarrel at Gurley’s saloon. Richard Phillips, who was found with a rifle and had exchanged words with the victim, was arrested onsite, along with Grant Watts.

In April 1900, Phillips was tried before a jury, with Judge Baker. E. Lee presiding. The day of the trial, Phillips’ defense attorney withdrew from the case and the court appointed Burdett Ashton Lewis as his replacement. Lewis had to defend Phillips in a trial just two hours after his appointment. Grant Watts served as a witness for the prosecution during Phillips’ trial and testified that he saw Phillips murder Joseph New with his rifle. Phillips, on the other hand, contested that it was Watts who had shot New with a pistol. The jurors seemingly found Watts more credible because the jury found Phillips guilty of murder on April 7, 1900. Watts was acquitted during his subsequent trial later the same month. In mid-April 1900, Phillips was sentenced to death.

Over a year after his conviction, his execution delayed several times, a special jury found Richard Phillips clinically insane in May 1901. Therefore, execution was suspended and Phillips was taken to Central State Hospital at Petersburg for mental rehabilitation.

Gertrude Tuckson, Phillips’ sister, appealed to Washington D.C. attorney Goldie Paregol to secure her brother’s freedom from the mental hospital in 1930. Tuckson claimed both that Richard was innocent and that he was no longer insane. The case was reopened, and a further investigation by state physicians corroborated Tuckson’s claim that Phillips was not insane.

By 1930, Burdett Ashton Lewis, Phillips’ defense attorney, was a Commonwealth’s (State’s) Attorney. After being contacted by Governor John Garland Pollard, Lewis wrote the Governor a letter stating his distinct remembrance of the Phillips case. He drew the Governor’s attention to a subsequent criminal prosecution in 1901, in which it was discovered that Watts had killed Private Joseph New. This conclusion was based on the determination that bullets from Phillips’ high-powered rifle would have exited a body upon such close impact, whereas bullets from Watts’ cheap pistol would not. The bullet that killed New did not exit his body. Lewis also specified that he would have pursued the case further had not Phillips been declared insane.

Upon these facts, Governor Pollard granted Richard Phillips an absolute pardon on November 14, 1930, and Central State Hospital released Phillips two weeks later at the age of fifty-two.
—Researched by Terrance Scotton
County:City of Hampton
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Reported Crime Date:1900
Age at the date of crime:
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Inadequate Legal Defense