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Richard Phillips

Longest Incarcerations before Exoneration
On December 14, 2017, 71-year-old Richard Phillips, convicted of murder in 1972 in Detroit, Michigan, was released after his conviction was vacated. The prosecution dismissed the charges in March 2018. Phillips served 45 years and two months in prison—the second-longest time incarcerated after conviction by any wrongfully convicted defendant prior to exoneration.

It all began shortly after 1 p.m., on June 26, 1971, when 21-year-old Gregory Harris left his home in Detroit, Michigan to buy cigarettes. He never returned.

The following day, his wife found his car, abandoned and with what appeared to be bloodstains on the front seat. Although police examined the car, they took no samples or photographs and returned it to Harris’s wife, who cleaned the vehicle.

On March 3, 1972, a highway maintenance worker found Harris’s body in a cluster of trees about 20 feet from the road near 19 Mile Road and Dequindre Road near Troy, Michigan. After his wife identified him by his clothing, an autopsy revealed he had been shot in the head.

On March 15, 1972, less than two weeks after Harris’s body was found, Fred Mitchell was arrested on charges of 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 he went missing. Police stopped Mitchell in July 1971 and confiscated a .22-caliber pistol from him. In November 1971, detectives questioned him about Harris. Mitchell would later claim that at the time, he implicated two other men—25-year-old Richard Phillips and 23-year-old Richard Palombo—although no record of that interview was ever found.

In March of 1972, just days after Harris’s body was found, Mitchell told the detectives that Palombo and Phillips had killed Harris. Mitchell had met Palombo when both were in prison—Mitchell on the manslaughter conviction and Palombo on an armed robbery conviction. At the time that Mitchell was interviewed, Phillips was in prison serving a 7 to 22 1/2 year prison sentence after being convicted of a 1971 armed robbery of a party store in Ferndale, Michigan.

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 a member of organized crime.

Mitchell said he met with Philips and Palombo on three occasions to plan the murder, and that Phillips said that Harris would be killed. If Mitchell could show he could keep his mouth shut, Mitchell would be given a contract to kill Harris’s brother, Alex Harris.

Gregory Harris was targeted, Mitchell said, because he had allegedly robbed Palombo’s Mafia cousin. Palombo and Phillips solicited him because he was Harris’s brother-in-law, and could lure Harris to a place where he would be shot.

Mitchell said that three days before the murder, Palombo and Phillips brought in another man, whom he knew only as “Pooch,” to drive the car. On June 26, 1971, Palombo and Phillips came to Mitchell’s home, and Mitchell called Harris and asked him to come over.

When Harris arrived, Mitchell, Palombo, and Phillips got into his car and the four of them drove off, stopping to pick up Pooch. Mitchell told the jury that he had convinced Harris they were going to commit a burglary together. Mitchell claimed that he was dropped off at a bar to act as a lookout.

He said he remained in the bar for two hours until Palombo and Phillips arrived there in a taxi. He quoted Palombo as saying that “the bill had been collected,” which he understood to mean that Harris had been killed. When the trial judge expressed confusion about the statement, Mitchell said that Phillips said they had “got” Harris.

Thirty minutes later, they took a cab to Mitchell’s house where, he said, Phillips and Palombo gave a “detail for detail” account. Mitchell testified that he was told that Pooch was driving with Palombo in the front seat, and Phillips and Harris in the back seat.

After Pooch parked the car in an alley, Phillips shot Harris in the back of the head, Mitchell said. Palombo then shot Harris in the abdomen. They then drove out to near Troy, Michigan and dumped the body.

Mitchell said that three days later, he met with Palombo, who was carrying a pillowcase containing several .22-caliber pistols. Palombo gave him the gun that Mitchell was carrying when police stopped him in July 1971. That was the weapon that police confiscated and had been linked to the shooting through ballistics testing.

During cross-examination, Mitchell admitted that he had given varying statements to police and at a preliminary hearing. For example, he previously told police that when he was dropped off at the bar to be a lookout, Pooch had yet to be picked up. He admitted that he really didn’t recall “exactly what happened” about Pooch. He also admitted that he initially told detectives they had all decided where to dump the body before the murder occurred, although he had told the jury he didn’t learn the location until after the murder.

Mitchell admitted that he gave a variety of different explanations about the murder weapon. He first said that Palombo gave him several guns, but not in a pillowcase. In another interview, he said Palombo called him the day after the murder and reported throwing guns over a bridge to Belle Isle, an island in the Detroit River between Michigan and Ontario, Canada. And in another interview, Mitchell said merely that Palombo had given him one gun—the murder weapon—the day after the crime.

The defense focused its efforts on attacking Mitchell’s credibility and suggesting that he had killed Harris. In addition, three witnesses were called for the defense. One testified about Palombo’s employment. Palombo’s parents also testified that there was no cousin named Jackie Fanelli, and that no family members belonged to the Mafia.

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 said that he met Mitchell in prison. Mitchell told him that after he was released, he was going to kill Harris because Mitchell had just learned that Harris stole $500 from Mitchell’s mother.

Palombo described how he and Mitchell cased out a convenience store as a place they could rob. However, Palombo said that because it was daylight and they didn’t have a vehicle, they abandoned that idea. He walked to a nearby bus stop to go home and Mitchell walked away, saying, “I’m going to try to get us a ride.”

Palombo said he was still at the bus stop not longer after when a car pulled up. Mitchell was in the passenger seat and Harris was behind the wheel. “He said, ‘Get in. I got us a ride,’” Palombo recalled.

Palombo said that after he got into the back seat, Mitchell told Harris they were going to commit a robbery. On the way, Harris stopped at a store to buy cigarettes.

While Harris was inside, Palombo said Mitchell demanded that Palombo hand over his gun. As Mitchell tucked it into his waistband, he said, “That’s the guy..that stole the money from my mother. I’m going to get him.

Harris came out and got behind the wheel. Mitchell directed into to a nearby alley and told him to stop about a block short of the store that Harris was told they were going to rob. But instead, Mitchell shot him as he sat behind the wheel. When Harris fell out of the car, Mitchell got out and shot him in the head, Palombo said.

Asked about Phillips’s involvement, 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, Phillips had been arrested for an armed robbery based on a witness who erroneously identified him. 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 since 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. 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 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, Phillips was exonerated of the armed robbery.

Beth Morrow, the head of the Oakland County Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU), issued a statement noting that Phillips had been identified by two witnesses who were white. “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.”

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 was awarded $735,088 in state compensation for that case.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 4/1/2018
Last Updated: 12/12/2023
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Conspiracy
Reported Crime Date:1971
Sentence:Life without parole
Age at the date of reported crime:25
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No