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.
Richard Phillips Was Framed For Gregory Harris’s Death By His Co-Defendant And The Prosecution’s Star Witness
Gregory Harris mysteriously disappeared on June 26, 1971. He was found deceased in March 1972 and detectives quickly determined he perished months earlier.
On March 15, Harris's brother-in-law Fred Mitchell was detained on charges of armed burglary. When he met with detectives, Mitchell said he knew who took Harris's life. He named Richard Phillips (a childhood friend of Mitchell's) and Richard Palombo (whom Mitchell had met in jail). A few days later, Phillips and Palombo were charged, though both men maintained their innocence.
The trial began in Wayne County Circuit Court in Michigan in September 1972. The only evidence linking Palombo and Phillips to Harris was Mitchell's sworn testimony. In this testimony, Mitchell claimed Palombo and Phillips detailed to him how and why they ended Harris.
According to Mitchell, he, Phillips, and Palombo met three times to discuss how to end Harris, who was being targeted because he allegedly took money from Palombo's cousin Jackie Fanelli, who supposedly was in the mafia (a claim which Palombo's relatives denied in their own testimony). Mitchell said that Phillips and Palombo recruited him because, as Harris's brother-in-law, he would be able to get Harris to meet up with them.
Mitchell said Phillips and Palombo brought in a man named "Pooch" to be their driver. On the night of June 26, 1971, Mitchell convinced Harris to come with the other men to take part in an armed burglary. His testimony stated that he was dropped off at a bar to be a lookout, while the others drove off with Harris. Two hours later, Phillips, Palombo, and "Pooch" returned without Mitchell's brother-in-law.
Mitchell testified that the men then went back to his house, where Phillips and Palombo gave him a detailed account of how they took Harris to a back alley where they enacted their plan.
Mitchell said he met with Palombo three days later, which is when Palombo gave him the .22-caliber pistol the police confiscated from Mitchell back in July 1971.
Despite Mitchell admitting under oath that this testimony varied from what he first told detectives, as well as what he'd testified to at the preliminary trial, the jury found his statements believable and convicted Phillips and Palombo on both charges.
In the early 1990s, new evidence came out on how Mitchell had reportedly cut a deal with the prosecutors; in return for pleading guilty on a separate armed burglary charge and testifying against Palombo and Phillips, Mitchell would not be charged with being an accessory.
In 2010, Palombo testified that Mitchell thought he could frame Phillips because Mitchell and Phillips were similar in appearance and the latter had already been detained for a theft that Mitchell had actually committed.
"They convicted me on what Mitchell said I told him. Period," Phillips said in an interview after he was exonerated.
While In Jail, Phillips Took Up Painting In Order To Help Deal With The Trauma Of His Imprisonment
Phillips began drawing as a way to try and help him cope with prison life. The drawing soon progressed to painting.
"Abstract, realism, surrealism - all types. You name it, I tried to do it," Phillips explained in a People Magazine Investigates interview. "It was something to take my mind off the pain, the misery, missing my kids, being convicted of something I didn't do."
He followed a routine of doing his artwork every morning, when his cellmate wasn't around. Much of his artwork is watercolor paintings of subjects such as landscapes, flowers, or musicians. Sometimes inspired by the photos he would see in newspapers, Phillips favored using bright colors that wouldn't bleed into each other.
"I didn't actually think I'd ever be free again. This art is what I did to stay sane," Phillips told the Associated Press in 2019.
He Regularly Shipped His Paintings To A Pen Pal, And When He Was Released, He Tracked Her Down And Started Selling The Art To Stay Afloat
Prison rules didn't allow Phillips to keep his paintings in his cell, so he would regularly send them to a friend he made through the prison's pen pal program. In late 2018, after he was exonerated, he went to New York to meet up with his old pen pal and discovered that she had held onto his prized artwork.
As of early 2019, Phillips still had not been awarded any wrongful conviction compensation from the State of Michigan (he would be awarded more than $1.5 million in May), so he reluctantly decided to exhibit and try to sell his work. He had more than 400 paintings.
"These [paintings] are like my children," Phillips told the AP. "But I don't have any money. I don't have a choice. Without this, I'd have a cup on the corner begging for nickels and dimes. I'm too old  to get a job."
Phillips's attorney Gabi Silver told the AP that her client's paintings were inspirational: "To suffer what he has suffered, to still be able to find good in people and to still be able to see the beauty in life - it's remarkable."
Richard Palombo Confessed To A Parole Board In 2010 That He And Fred Mitchell Took Harris’s Life
In August 2010, Palombo appeared before the Michigan Department of Corrections Parole Board to testify in support of his petition for clemency. It was at this hearing that he admitted under oath that he and Mitchell were responsible for taking Gregory Harris's life.
Palombo explained that he and Mitchell had met in jail and that Mitchell had told him he was going to end Harris after he was released because he had learned that Harris had pocketed $500 from Mitchell's mother.
His testimony also revealed that Palombo was released just one day before Harris was taken out, which meant that he and Phillips could not have met with Mitchell three times prior to the event, as Mitchell claimed under oath during the 1972 trial.
Palombo testified that Phillips was not present when he and Mitchell confronted Harris, and that he hadn't even met Phillips until eight days afterward. He claimed that Mitchell knew he could pin the crime on Phillips because Phillips was misidentified as the culprit in an armed burglary that Mitchell committed.
"Palombo finally told the truth," Phillips said in the People Magazine Investigates episode. "I guess he felt like 'if I tell the truth now, well maybe they'll let me out.'"
But in order to get Phillips a new trial, Palombo had to give this same testimony to an appeals court. He refused. Mitchell, meanwhile, could not be charged or even questioned on the basis of Palombo's confession, as he had passed in 1997.
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.
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.