Longest-serving exoneree in US history “just glad to be free” after 47 years in prison
Here is a story of murder, of injustice that took decades to correct, and of forgiveness.
Imagine yourself going about your life, when, suddenly, you're accused of murder. And nobody believes you when you say, "I didn't do it!"
You're convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life without parole.
For decades, you make your case and mount appeals, all trying to convince those in authority that you are innocent — but no one listens, and the years drag on.
Finally, the Michigan Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School hears about you. They start digging and discover that a key witness lied – a witness who committed the murder.
At last, after a total of 47 years in prison, you are freed.
That is what happened to Richard Phillips. The Detroit native was in his twenties when he was wrongly convicted of the 1971 murder of an autoworker named Gregory Harris.
Today, he is 72. He is the longest-serving exoneree in U.S. history, yet he carries no bitterness for those lost years.
David Moran, co-founder of the Michigan Innocence Clinic, joined Stateside to talk about how he and his team were able to exonerate Richard Phillips.
He says it began in 2010, when a man named Richard Palumbo told the Michigan Parole Board that Phillips had been framed by a man named Fred Mitchell.
"Students and I met with [Palumbo]," says Moran, "and he confirmed the story that he was in fact involved in the murder of Gregory Harris, but that it was carried out and orchestrated by Fred Mitchell, who ended up being the prosecutor’s star witness against Richard Phillips."
Moran says Mitchell had incentive to lie, but the jury wasn't informed of the circumstances of Mitchell's testimony against Phillips.
Phillips joined Stateside to share his story. Listen above for the full conversation, or catch highlights below.
On Phillips' return to society
Phillips said there are programs in place for former prisoners, but his is a special case.
"They say you're not guilty, but you're on your own," Phillips said. He has been in the process of applying for financial assistance as well as new IDs, since his were all lost while he was incarcerated.
"I'm doing a lot better than I was when I first got out," he said, adding that he had to start from scratch. "It was almost like being born again," he said.
Now, Phillips is getting re-acclimated to society, and re-learning how to do everything from shopping to using a phone.
"There's a lot of things that have changed, so I'm still learning," he said.
Phillips said he doesn't hold a grudge against the people or system that wrongly convicted him.
"If I ever want anybody to forgive me for the things that I've done in the past, then I also have to do the same thing," he said.
That forgiveness extends to Fred Mitchell, the man who framed him for the murder.
"Self-preservation is the first law of nature, so that's what Fred Mitchell resorted to," Phillips said. "I don't like what he did, but I understand it."
On Phillips' art hobby
Richard Phillips always had a gift for art, but it wasn’t until a watercolor paint set mistakenly arrived in his mail — he had ordered an acrylic set — that he found his true form. “From there,” he said, “I actually taught myself how to use watercolor.”
Painting proved to be a saving grace in prison, where “something is going on all the time, every day,” Phillips said. “One of the best ways to stay out of that is to actually apply yourself to some other medium,” he said. “I can escape the world when I get into one of my paintings.”
On Phillips' future
Now that Phillips is free, he is faced with building a life from the ground up. First, he said, “I need my transportation.” Then, he hopes to buy a home, and maybe a dog. “A German Shepherd puppy or something to grow up with,” he said.
“After that, just live life, maybe travel. See how things go.”