Richard Phillips, a tall, broad-shouldered man, has a habit of humming to himself. It’s a deep, soulful sound that he began doing when he was a young boy. It proved useful when he was in prison. Music, in general, helped him through those long years – 46 to be exact. In fact, just two days after being sentenced to life in prison in 1972, he wrote a poem. Likely the first poem he ever wrote.
He was 26 years old at the time and knew the only way he’d ever return to his children and his previous life was to somehow prove his innocence. The problem was that he was serving a life sentence for a murder he never committed. He was convicted of the 1971 murder of Gregory Harris in Detroit, yet Phillips always maintained his innocence. With one failed appeal after another, he was getting nowhere. That is until the man that put him in prison in the first place finally spoke up.
Failed Appeals = New Lawyer
After failed appeals in the mid-1970s, Phillips thought he might win if he could just find a better lawyer. But first, he needed the funds. So, he took a job at the Jackson prison’s license plate factory, working the assembly line. The wages were by no means good, but for prison standards, $100 a month plus bonuses meant Phillips could open a bank account and watch the money accumulate.
Four years later, he saved enough to pay for one of the best appellate lawyers in the state of Michigan. As he thought of his kids and wrote love poems to women (real and imaginary), he waited. On January 1st, 1979, Phillips was in his cell when an inmate walked in with some news. He’d just seen Fred Mitchell (the prosecution’s star witness) in the chow hall. At that point, it had been 2,677 days since Phillips saw his children…
Picturing the Justice
In Phillip’s eyes, Fred Mitchell was the reason he was even behind bars. So, upon hearing that he was now in the same place as him, Phillips knew what he needed to do. Since the prison was home to several factories, there was easy access to raw materials, like scrap metal, and homemade knives.
Phillips (and his friend) held a makeshift knife under his sleeve as they stood outside the cafeteria, in the prison yard, waiting for Mitchell to come out. Phillips had it all planned in his mind, the bloody revenge he’s been fantasizing about for years. It would feel like justice. Justice for what would become the longest known wrongful prison sentence in American history.
A Faceless System
The National Registry of Exonerations listed over 2,500 people who had been convicted of crimes only to later be found innocent. Richard Phillips served more time than any other person on that list. Without a doubt, the police failed him. Both the prosecution and defense attorney failed him. The jury failed him and, ultimately, the justice system.
But on that cold day, in the prison yard, standing at the blind spot where cameras wouldn’t catch him on tape, Phillips wasn’t thinking about this faceless system that wrongfully put him behind bars. He was thinking about the very man that got him in there in the first place: his old friend Fred Mitchell.
A Peek into His Past
When Phillips was 12 years old, his stepfather’s watch disappeared. Phillips didn’t take the watch, but his step-father beat him anyways. His mother watched, too scared to intervene. Eventually, Phillips had to confess to taking the watch, just to make him stop. The boy emerged that day by telling himself that it would be the last false confession he would ever make.
The next morning he ran away, sleeping on the hard floor of a vacant house in the Detroit neighborhood. The police found him the next day and brought him home, only to have his stepfather beat him again. Alone in the attic, or on the streets of Detroit, Phillips had to teach himself how to survive, and more importantly, how to escape into his own mind by drawing pictures.
Just a Couple of Juvenile Delinquents
It was on the streets that he made the same friend that would later betray him in the worst way possible. Little is known about Fred Mitchell beyond a few old acquaintances’ memories. One reporter approached his sister in 2019 to ask about Mitchell. The first thing she said? “Get the f— off my porch.”
What we do know is that he was once a good baseball player. When they weren’t playing baseball, Phillips and Mitchell would skip school to play with BB guns, drink beer in alleyways, and fight in backyards, playing hide-and-seek with the cops. Just a couple of juvenile delinquents on a path to becoming hardened criminals in a violent city. By December 13th, 1967, Mitchell made the news…
Going Different Ways
The Detroit Daily Dispatch newspaper had a brief item on page 2 about a 19-year-old man who pleaded guilty to manslaughter. It was Fred Mitchell, who fought with another man and shot him to death. By this time, Phillips was already on a better path. He did serve a brief prison sentence for joyriding, but he decided to take a typing class to learn some handy skills and stay out of the system.
While on parole, he got a job at the Chrysler plant in Hamtramck, making $4.10 an hour (about $33 an hour in today’s dollars). He wore a suit and rode the bus to work, spending less time with his old crew. One day, his girlfriend Theresa told him she was pregnant; the baby was his.
Only to Reconnect
Their daughter was born, they got married, and had another child, a son. The young couple rented a modest apartment on Gladstone, and Phillips bought a car. He gave his kids all the things he never had himself: love, new clothes, and presents under the Christmas tree. But in 1971, when Phillips turned 25, things started to unravel.
A prank at work went too far. Someone dropped a lit cigarette into someone else’s back pocket, and the guy said Phillips was the one who did it. Phillips denied it, but it was too late; he lost his job. This was around the same time Fred Mitchell got out of prison. Now jobless and in a troubled marriage, Phillips returned to hanging out with his old friend.
The Last Time He Saw His Kids
Phillips was starting to live a double life, a father by day, and a drug addict by night. One day, after taking his 4-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son to the Michigan State Fair, and riding the Ferris wheel and crashing around in bumper cars, Phillips took his kids home, went out, and never came back.
On September 6, 1971, two men entered a convenience store just outside of Detroit. The black man of the pair stood to watch near the entrance. The white man pulled out a gun and demanded money from the till. They drove off with a measly $10 in stolen cash. A citizen then noticed a car driving erratically and called the police. The vehicle’s registration directed them to Richard Palombo, also known as Dago, a friend of Mitchell’s from prison.
Who Was His Accomplice?
Palombo couldn’t deny his involvement in the event; he pled guilty to armed robbery. But who was his accomplice? Both Phillips and Mitchell were detained after Palombo was. The two men looked similar. In a lineup, two witnesses looked them over and concurred that the second robber was Richard Phillips. But was it really him?
At Phillips’ trial, Palombo took the witness stand and confessed that he committed the robbery. The prosecutor asked him who he was with. “I don’t want to mention the name,” Palombo stated. “Is your silence because you did not wish to incriminate someone else?” Phillips’ lawyer asked him. Palombo replied: “Yes.” Palombo’s silence about that 1971 crime would stretch out for another 39 years.
A Minimum of Seven Years
Despite the fact that one witness flip-flopped between identifying the second robber as Mitchell or Phillips, the jury still found Phillips guilty. He was then sentenced to a minimum of seven years in prison. He was still in prison the next year when the body of a man named Gregory Harris turned up.
21-year-old Harris disappeared in June 1971 after heading out to buy cigarettes. His wife found his car the following night with bloodstains on the seats. Later that year, his mother told a police officer about a strange phone call she received. An unknown woman told her: “I can’t hold it any longer, a Fred Mitchell and a guy named ‘Dago’ took your son out of a car at LaSalle Street.”
Ratting His “Friend” Out
She continued: “They shot him in the head and killed him. They then took him out near 10 Mile Road and tossed him from the car.” But what the police did with that information remains unclear. Then, on March 3, 1972, a street repairman in Troy, Michigan, saw what turned out to be Harris’ skeleton, frozen in the ground. The autopsy confirmed the cause of death: multiple gunshot wounds to his head.
On March 15, Mitchell was arrested for a different crime, armed robbery and carrying a concealed weapon. But he told police that he had information on the murder of Gregory Harris. He told them that the killers were Richard Palombo and Richard Phillips.
The Sworn Testimony a Criminal
The authorities had no evidence connecting these suspects to the crime, nor did they have circumstantial evidence. All they had was the sworn testimony of one man, a criminal, and it was enough for the police to say they solved a murder. When Mitchell testified against Palombo and Phillips in court, he stated that he knew about the murder before it was even carried out.
His role in the murder was calling Harris to lure him into the trap. He was arrested for being in possession of what was likely the murder weapon. He even admitted to a possible motive; Harris had stolen a $500 check from Mitchell’s mother’s purse. But for whatever reason, the state of Michigan gave another theory of the case.
Phillips’ Lawyer Was Useless
The prosecutor tried to convince the jury that Mitchell heard Palombo and Phillips conspiring to kill Harris. Why? Because apparently, one of Harris’ brothers robbed a drug dealer, who was a cousin of Palombo. But neither Mitchell nor the prosecutor ever explained why Phillips would take part in such a revenge killing, for the cousin of a man he hardly knew.
Palombo’s father took the stand and stated that this “cousin” didn’t even exist. Despite the lack of evidence, Phillips’ court-appointed lawyer, Theodore Sallen, was strangely silent, letting Palombo’s lawyer do pretty much all of the cross-examinations. He didn’t challenge Mitchell. He didn’t even call one witness or introduce any evidence. When it came time for a closing argument, Salle’s actual words were: “You know, they talk about Gregory Harris being dead. I don’t know if Gregory Harris is dead.”
Not Necessarily, Your Honor
It took the jury four hours to decide that Palombo and Phillips were guilty of conspiracy to murder as well as first-degree murder. Before giving him a sentence of life in prison, the judge asked Richard Phillips if he wanted to say anything. He said: “Not necessarily, your honor, except for the fact that I was not guilty, you know, even though I was found guilty.”
He continued to say, “And not too much can be done about it right now to correct the injustice already, so all I can do is just, you know, wait until something develops in my favor.” And so Phillips was to remain where he was – in prison – but for a much longer sentence than the seven years, he was previously meant to serve. He was relocated to the Ryan Road in Detroit.
Without a Doubt
Phillips waited in his cell, trying to ignore the insanity that occurred around him, surviving on coffee and watered-down orange juice, writing poems and reading “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.” He would see children visiting inmates and guards searching diapers for possible drugs. Phillips resolved to spare his kids from such an experience.
He wrote a letter to his wife, telling her not to visit and not to bring the kids. He told her to move on and find someone else. And that’s exactly what she did… eventually. On January 17, 1977, Phillips wrote a poem in his journal called “Without a Doubt.” And it’s rather heartbreaking. The verses go like this:
“Ain’t it a crime/ When you don’t have a dime/ To buy back the freedom you’ve lost?
Ain’t it a sin/ When your closest friend/ Won’t lend you a helping hand?
Ain’t it a rule/ That’s taught in school/ That says ’Be kind to your fellow man?’
Ain’t it odd/ That when you pray to God/ Your prayers don’t seem to be heard?
Ain’t it sad/ When you’ve never had/ The freedom of a soaring bird?”
A Generous Inmate
Phillips always hated smoking, but in prison, the man sometimes needed a cigarette to calm his nerves. In prison, you don’t just throw away a half-smoked cigarette; you savor it, down to the filter. One day in December, an inmate he didn’t know handed him two packs of cigarettes, simply saying to him, “Merry Christmas.”
Ever since, Phillips started giving presents to inmates: a book, a package of cookies, whatever. It felt good to give. Through an inmate program called Angel Tree, Phillips picked out toys to be sent to his children. In 1989, a contest was held for the best Christmas song. Phillips won the $10 prize for his song. The chorus: “So just give me your love for Christmas/ For love is all that I need/ And if you give me your love at Christmas/ My Christmas will be merry indeed.”
Keeping Sane with Art
In 1990, when Phillips turned 44, he had a creative awakening and had his most prolific period as a poet. He wrote at least 31 poems that year. But it was that same year that he stopped writing poetry since he found something he liked even more. Since the mid-1980s, after finishing his GED and associate’s degree in business, he liked to draw and paint. While he requested an acrylic paint set, he got a watercolor set instead.
The simple mistake ended up changing the course of his life. If you’re wondering how a man passes 46 excruciatingly long years behind bars, one way to do it is to find a hobby. It seems Phillips’ was art. He started to read art books from the prison library, for both technique and inspiration. The better he got, the more he enjoyed it. Painting became his new addiction.
Reviewing His Flimsy Case
Losing himself in his art meant that sometimes, believe it or not, he would forget about his case, his continuous appeals, and his 20-year search (so far) for a judge who will actually fight for him. While he was busy with his art, Judge Helen E. Brown, a woman whose court was full of lying killers, rapists, and child abusers, was reviewing his file.
As she read the trial transcript, she was astonished. It looked like Palombo and Phillips had been convicted of murder on the testimony of one witness. The way she saw it, if all cases were this flimsy, then anyone could accuse anyone of anything and have them be sent to prison. She decided to grant Phillips a new trial, only to get it reversed by the Michigan Court of Appeals.
Not a Fair Trial
The judge was curious as to what was going on. She read the court file on Fred Mitchell’s case from 1972. The trial judge said he deserved some consideration for helping in the murder case (the one Phillips was serving for). Mitchell cooperated, and his sentence got lighter. The judge reduced the potential life sentence to 10 to 20 years, to which his lawyer got worked down to 4 to 10 years.
Brown figured that the prosecution made a deal with Mitchell and kept it a secret from the defendants and from the jury. In her eyes, it “constituted prosecutorial misconduct,” meaning neither Palombo nor Phillips received a fair trial. In 1992, she ordered new trials for both men.
Meanwhile, in Prison
The Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office denied Brown’s allegation of misconduct and handed the men’s cases over to three appellate judges. They all concluded that there wasn’t enough evidence to prove misconduct. They reversed Brown’s order. If hope peered its head out, it was just as quickly tucked away.
Meanwhile, Phillips kept painting cross-examinations and his artwork was piling up in his cell. Since it would be considered “excess property,” Phillips made boxes from cardboard and mailed his paintings to a pen pal in New York. Her name was Doreen Cromartie, and she kept his paintings safe in her cellar, hoping he would retrieve them someday. On October 20, 2009, Phillips was granted a public hearing.
Tell the Truth?
It was a big move; if he said the right things, the governor might commute his sentence, and he could go free. Board member David Fountain told Phillips that what was pivotal is that “when we talk, we hear the truth, whatever the truth is.” Phillips understood. He was 63 by that point and had already spent 38 years in the custody of the Michigan Department of Corrections.
Phillips learned that people generally don’t want to hear the truth. Because in 1972, a man lied, and the jury believed it. Tell the truth? Phillips told the truth about his stepfather’s watch and down came his belt. The truth didn’t always work for Richard Philips.
As for Richard Palombo, despite saying, “I am not afraid of anybody,” the truth is that he was very afraid…
Fear and Guilt
In an interview with CNN in 2019, Palombo revealed that he was afraid of Fred Mitchell, afraid to talk about what they did in 1971. “I just kept my mouth shut under threat for my life and my family’s life. He told me to keep quiet, so that’s what I did.” Time had passed, and Palombo’s health deteriorated, mixing his fear with guilt.
Palombo had nightmares and prayed for forgiveness. Like Phillips, he too kept filing appeals, and when something finally worked, he wrote to Phillips, encouraging him to try the same thing. Palombo was no longer afraid of Fred Mitchell, and that’s because he heard that Mitchell was dead. In 2010, Palombo had a public hearing, and the same thing was crucial; if he said the right things, he could go free.
Telling the Real Story
But Palombo didn’t say the right things. He was asked to recount the details of the crime from the beginning. In prior statements, he had just gone along with Mitchell’s story — that Harris was killed after he robbed a place operated by Palombo’s cousin. But now he told another story, one that never before come to light.
In 1970, while serving time, Palombo worked in the kitchen with Mitchell, and the two became friends. After Mitchell had a visitor one day, he told Palombo that these guys went to his mother’s house and stole a $500 check from her purse. Mitchell told Palombo he was going to get those guys once he got out. Mitchell ended up getting released before Palombo. Eventually, they met up and planned a robbery at a convenience store.
That’s The Guy
The plan was to rob the store, but in broad daylight, with no getaway car. So Palombo said he’ll take the bus home instead. At the bus stop, Mitchell called his name. They had a car now, and Gregory Harris was the driver. “Get in,” Mitchell said. Palombo got in, ready for the robbery. When Harris went into a store to buy cigarettes, Mitchell asked Palombo for the gun.
Palombo handed it over, and Mitchell put the gun in his waistband. That’s when Mitchell told him his real plan. “That’s the guy,” he said, referring to one of the guys who stole the check from his mother. “I’m going to get him.” Harris came back to the car. Mitchell, sitting in the front passenger’s seat, told Harris to drive into an alley. Harris did so and Mitchell shot Harris in the head.
“And Mr. Phillips Was Totally Innocent?”
Palombo recounted the story in court, telling the judge that Mitchell then fired again. Harris opened his door, slid out of the car, and Mitchell stood over him to shoot him again. He then asked Palombo to help him put his body into the car. Mitchell then drove to the suburbs, by 19 Mile Road, and dumped the body.
39 years later, as Palombo told this story in court, the assistant attorney general, Charles Schettler, noticed that Phillips was missing from this story. “I didn’t meet Mr. Phillips until July 4th, 1971, at a barbecue at Mr. Mitchell’s house, which was about eight days after the murder,” Palombo admitted. “And Mr. Phillips was totally innocent?” Schettler asked. “He wasn’t even there?” Palombo replied: “That’s correct.”
Before He Passed Away
Palombo never made it out of prison. It’s not because of the fact that his appeal had no effect on his sentence. It was because of COVID-19. He was among the many prisoners who tested positive for the virus. He died on April 19, 2020, at the age of 71, while his appeal was still pending in the Michigan Supreme Court. But before he died, he took another step to help Phillips’ case.
Even with Palombo’s sworn testimony in 2010, it still took another seven years to get any results. In 2014, he took matters into his own hands and asked his attorney to get in touch with the Michigan Innocence Clinic, where co-founder David Moran read his transcript. Moran and his team dug into the case. They convinced a judge to grant Phillips a new trial.
The Fearless Defense Attorney
A defense attorney by the name of Gabi Silver agreed to represent Phillips. During informal discussions, an idea was raised, involving Phillips pleading guilty to walk away with time served. But his response to that was: “I’d rather die in prison than admit to something I didn’t do.” On December 12, 2017, Wayne County Circuit Judge Kevin Cox granted Phillips a $5,000 personal bond.
What does that mean? Phillips didn’t have to pay anything to leave jail, as long as he wore an ankle monitor and showed up to his new trial. What did that really mean? It meant that he could go free for the first time in 46 years. He just needed a place to go.
A Complete Exoneration
In December 2017, a woman named Julie Baumer took the 71-year-old Richard Phillips into her 900-square-foot ranch in Roseville, about 15 miles of Detroit. Baumer lived with her 86-year-old father, Jules. As for his trial, on March 28, 2018, the judge signed an order dismissing Phillips’ case. It was a complete exoneration.
By October 2019, Phillips has several adoptive families, different homes in which he was always welcome. Yes, Doreen Cromartie still had his nearly 400 paintings. Phillips, with the help of new friends, started putting his art on display and selling them. Some were even being sold for $5,000. He was finally able to make money and pay his bills. He also sent Doreen a check to thank her for making it possible.
What About His Family?
His son, Richard Phillips Jr., is now 50 years old. When his mother saw the news of her ex-husband’s exoneration, she called Gabi Silver’s office. The father and son reunited at the zoo. It looks like artistic sense was something genetic in this family because Phillips learned that his son also learned to paint, and even won an award for his portrait of Lisa Bonet when he was in high school.
Phillips’ daughter moved to France and didn’t wish to see her 73-year-old father (not yet at least). When a reporter emailed her asking why she declined to talk. Regardless of the proven wrongful-imprisonment, the Phillips family was torn for too long.
Back to That Prison Yard Moment
That moment in the prison yard back in 1979? With the knife under his sleeve? Well, as Phillips envisioned the knife going in, he heard something, felt something, in his mind: Don’t kill him. Why? Because you might still have a chance to get out of here. They saw him as a murderer. If he killed Fred Mitchell, it would be true.
So Phillips didn’t attack the trader. As Phillips painted his way to his freedom, Mitchell drank himself to death when he was 49. As for Phillips, if you’re wondering if he ever got compensated for such a disgrace of a case that utterly ruined his life, the answer is yes…
Richard Phillips, the longest-serving U.S. inmate to be cleared, was set to receive $1.5 million from the state. According to Attorney General Dana Nessel, “We have an obligation to provide compassionate compensation to these men for the harm they suffered.” As per the new laws, someone who is exonerated due to new evidence can qualify for up to $50,000 for every year spent in prison.
With 46 years behind bars, Phillips would be eligible for more than $2 million. But it was explained that he’s being paid for 30 years because he served a separate armed robbery conviction at the same time. But Phillips and his legal team claimed that he was wrongly convicted for that crime, too. However, Oakland County prosecutors have yet to clear him on that record.