Unspeakable Times
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The Longest-Serving Exonerated US Inmate Is Now An Acclaimed Contemporary Painter

Updated February 17, 2021 1.8k views12 items

In October 1972, Richard Phillips was one of two men convicted in the untimely demise of Gregory Harris. Phillips always claimed he was innocent, but his appeals for a new trial were consistently denied until 2014, four years after Richard Palombo, Phillips's co-defendant, confessed that Phillips was not involved. He was finally granted a new trial in December 2017, and was released on bond after being imprisoned for over 45 years. In March 2018, the charges against him were dropped, making him the longest-serving exonerated inmate in US history.

While incarcerated, Phillips took up painting as a way to try and keep his sanity and process the trauma of being wrongfully accused. He composed hundreds of watercolors, and since he couldn't keep them in his cell, he sent the artwork to a pen pal. After he was released, he retrieved the paintings and reluctantly decided to start exhibiting and selling some of his work in the hope of being able to support himself financially.

Since his release, Phillips has worked on readjusting to being a free man and has received much acclaim for his artwork. He has even established his own gallery.

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  • Photo: People Magazine Investigates / Investigation Discovery

    Mitchell Admitted On The Stand That He Gave Varying Accounts Of The Events To Police

    Mitchell's testimony was the only evidence that implicated Phillips and Palombo in Harris's demise. Under cross-examination, Mitchell admitted that he told conflicting stories to the police and at the preliminary hearing. For example, he told the police that, prior to the event, he, Phillips, and Palombo jointly decided where to leave Harris's remains; but at the preliminary hearing, he claimed he didn't know where that location would be until after Harris was already deceased. He also told conflicting stories about how many arms were involved and what happened to them.

    The defense attempted to use Mitchell's conflicting testimony to question his credibility as a witness and to suggest that it was Mitchell, not Palombo or Phillips, who ended Harris. But this attempt failed, and in October 1972, Phillips and Palombo were convicted on charges in the first-degree. They were both sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

  • Photo: People Magazine Investigates / Investigation Discovery

    Phillips Attempted To Appeal His Conviction Multiple Times Over The Years

    Phillips dropped out of school in the 10th grade, but after he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole, he got his GED and then graduated from college - with honors. Then he began studying law with the hope that he could get a judge to grant him a new trial so he would have a chance to prove that Mitchell lied under oath.

    "I had this feeling that I just had to keep fighting for my life, no matter what," Phillips said. 

    He filed his first appeal in 1979; the court denied that motion. In 1982, he filed a writ of habeas corpus. While a trial court granted him a new trial, the Court of Appeal reversed that decision.

    In 1992, evidence was discovered that Mitchell was offered a deal by the police; in return for pleading guilty to a separate armed burglary case, he wouldn't be charged as an accessory in Harris's case. In light of this new evidence, a trial court again granted Phillips a new trial, only to have the Court of Appeal again reverse that decision.

  • Photo: People Magazine Investigates / Investigation Discovery

    A .22-Caliber Pistol Police Confiscated From Mitchell Was Linked To Harris

    Fred Mitchell was Gregory Harris's brother-in-law and was considered a prime suspect in Harris's disappearance. In July 1971, police confiscated a .22-caliber pistol from Mitchell. At that time, Mitchell was on parole for an earlier manslaughter charge, but although having a side arm was a violation of his parole, he was not detained. 

    When Phillips and Palombo went on trial in September 1972, the prosecution presented evidence that ballistics testing had linked the .22 to two bullets recovered from Harris. Despite this evidence, Mitchell was not charged. 

  • After Harris's Wife Found His Car Abandoned, Police Examined The Vehicle But Failed To Take Any Samples Or Photos Before Returning It To His Wife, Who Then Had The Car Cleaned

    On June 27, 1971, one day after his disappearance, Harris's wife found his car abandoned with what looked to be bloodstains on the seat. When she alerted the police, they examined the car but did not take any photographs or samples of the substance on the seat before returning the vehicle to his wife.

    She then had the car cleaned, which would have wiped out any possible evidence.