• Unspeakable Times

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

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.

  • Phillips Hid His Paintings At The Bottom Of His Footlocker To Keep The Guards From Finding Them

    Phillips said that the more he painted, the less he would suffer emotionally. So as soon as he completed one painting, he would start working on another.

    He hid his work in the bottom of his footlocker so that if the guards came by his cell, they would not see how many paintings he had accumulated. Every so often, he would send his artwork to his pen pal.

  • Phillips Taught Himself How To Use Watercolors When His Order For Acrylic Paints Was Messed Up

    Phillips began painting with watercolors after he was sent a set of watercolor paints rather than the acrylic paints he had actually ordered. He didn't know how to use watercolors but was able to quickly teach himself how to apply this kind of paint.

    As of 2019, he was still using the same set of watercolors he had received back in 1990. "Watercolor is an inexpensive way to actually express yourself," he told Now This News.

    In order to purchase the watercolors and other painting supplies, Phillips sold handmade greeting cards to other inmates. 

  • A Second Investigation Led To Phillips's Exoneration In 2017

    The testimony that Palombo gave at his 2010 appearance before the parole board was reported to the Michigan Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School four years later. In 2015, Phillips passed a polygraph test where he swore he had no involvement in Harris's demise. The Michigan Innocence Clinic used the results of this test and Palombo's testimony to file a supplemental motion for relief from judgment on Phillips's behalf.

    "I knew they [the Michigan Innocence Clinic team] were my only hope," Phillips said a few years after his exoneration.

    The motion was granted in August 2017 and on December 14, 2017, Phillips was released from prison, more than 45 years after his conviction.

    "Fresh air. I could've walked out here barefoot and it would have been just as good," Phillips told reporters after he walked out of the facility he'd been locked up in for more than half his life. 

    He admitted he had resigned himself to living out the rest of his life in prison. "Actually, I never really thought this would happen," he said, as he fought back tears. "But... God has shone a light on me, and he's put some people in my life [and] that has, you know, changed it. And I'm appreciative of that."

  • Photo: People Magazine Investigates / Investigation Discovery

    About Two Years After He Was Released From Prison, Phillips Was Awarded $1.5 Million From The State Of Michigan

    The charges against Phillips were dismissed in March 2018 after the prosecution examined new evidence showing further proof that Mitchell had lied on the stand during the original trial. 

    As he dismissed the charges, Wayne County Judge Kevin Cox told Phillips: 

    Whenever you've addressed the court, you have clearly been a very dignified gentleman in this courtroom. I think you are a man of integrity and dignity in my observation, and I wish you nothing but the best in the future. I hope that other people can benefit from your situation and your story.

    Although he was released from jail in December 2017, Phillips said he was relieved to finally get legal validation of his innocence on the record.

    "I actually didn't do the crime that they actually accused me and found me guilty of. So I had to endure that pain and suffering in prison until I ended up getting my papers," Phillips said. "Now I've got my freedom papers."

    Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy stated:

    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 Mr. Phillips receive wrongful conviction compensation.

    For more than a year after the charges against him were officially dropped, Phillips failed to receive any financial support from the state. He briefly received Social Security, but because he had too much money in a GoFundMe account he'd started, not only was that source of income cut off, but he was also told he would have to return the money he had received from the government. Eventually, he sued the State of Michigan to get the money he was entitled to under the law. 

    Finally, in May 2019, Phillips was awarded that wrongful conviction compensation in the amount of $1.5 million.