America’s longest-serving exoneree has spoken about his life as a free man after spending 45 years behind bars for a murder he did not commit.
When Richard Phillips went to prison in 1972, Richard Nixon was the president of the United States, swimmer Mark Spitz had won seven gold medals at the Summer Olympics and gas cost 35 cents a gallon.
Now aged 71, Phillips is slowly stepping back into society, surviving on $500 a month in social security and $89 in food stamps.
‘I missed out on a lot while I was locked up for 45 years for a crime I did not commit. I hadn’t seen my kids and my mother died. Looking back on it, I don’t know how I made it in prison,’ Phillips told DailyMailTV in his first exclusive sit-down interview.
‘I got up every day while in prison going through the motions, just trying to survive. I finally had to leave it God’s hands and my prayers were answered.’
Phillips – who was sentenced to life in prison – was finally released on March 28 and revealed the first thing he did after the charges were dropped was hit up a local casino and feast at the buffet.
‘We don’t get a lot of hot food in prison. I went to the casino, I won $35 dollars and pigged out on the buffet. In prison most of the food we have is served cold so to get a hot meal is a real treat.’
Free at last: Richard Phillips, 71, was released last month after spending 45 years behind bars for a murder he did not commit
Back in the day: Phillips, who had worked as a clerk typist for Chrysler, was a 26-year-old father of two when he was hit with a life sentence
The father of two was 26 years old and already in jail for an armed robbery conviction when local Detroit detectives arrested him for murdering the brother-in-law of a man he knew from the streets.
‘In the spring of 1972 I was sitting in prison and detectives told me that a friend of mine told them that I helped murder a guy with another man, Richard Palombo,’ he said.
‘A guy I formerly ran around with, Fred Mitchell told detectives that me and Palombo murdered his brother-in-law, Gregory Harris in the summer of 1971.’
Fred Mitchell had just been arrested on a burglary charge and told cops of the murder in order to help himself out, Phillips claims.
Based on Mitchell’s testimony, both Phillips and Palombo were found guilty of first-degree murder on June 26, 1971 and sentenced in October 1972 to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Richard Palombo is currently serving a life sentence, but last month, Wayne County Circuit Judge Kevin J. Cox finally dismissed the murder charges against Phillips.
For years he has maintained that Mitchell, who has since passed away, and Palombo murdered Harris and dumped his body in a field that June. Phillips denied knowing anything about the murder at the time.
Mitchell was already in prison for a previous charge when Harris allegedly stole money from his mother. He later killed Harris, his own brother-in-law, when he was released from jail as payback, Phillips claims.
Phillips (pictured left in a prison library) feels he missed out on an entire lifetime while behind bars. He has never used an ATM nor is he familiar with social media
Richard Phillips (right with cap ) in prison
‘I don’t like what Mitchell did [lie in court] but I half way understand what he did, it was self-preservation. It’s the first law of nature, especially in the streets, especially in the hood where I come from, where you have to fight your way in the door and out of the door. I forgave him (Mitchell) over the years. He had to save himself.’
When he first heard the verdict for the murder conviction, Phillips said: ‘I just felt like life was over, I was in shock. But at same point I had to come to the realization that life isn’t over I have to fight and keep going forward so that is what I tried to do.’
Phillips, who had worked as a clerk typist for Chrysler, spent time in nine different prisons in Michigan over the past 45 years, ‘I spent 19 years in one prison here in Detroit and 10 years in one cell. I never left (living in) that cell in 10 years.’
‘I’ve been in the hole three times and only had four write ups in 45 years, I was basically a model prisoner.’
After all of his court appeals ran out with no luck, he started praying, going to church, and taking up painting as a hobby.
While his wife and two children never visited him in prison during his 45 years and his brother only visited him once, Phillips spent time painting with watercolors and joined a pen pal club.
‘At some point I realized it’s going to take something a little stronger than me to get out of her. I regained my spirituality.
‘A good amount of time being imprisoned I spent painting with watercolors alone in my cell.’
‘I had about 100 women respond to my ad. Some of them sent me checks and clothing out of the kindness of their heart. And of all those women about 10 of them visited me over the years.
Phillips painted greeting cards and sold them for $1.50 and used the money to buy more paint supplies.
Phillips shows off his art work, a hobby he picked up while he was locked up. Phillips sold greeting cards and paintings for $1.50 in jail. He now hopes to make a career out of it
Phillips told DailyMailTV: ‘I never lost hope, I knew this day was going to come, I did know it was going to take 45 years’
He also received his Associates Degree in business while in prison wants to continue painting and studying art and maybe even make a career out of it, hoping one day to display his artwork in a gallery.
‘My brother visited me one time in 1990 to give me some information about my mother who was in a nursing home at the time. I was really never close to my brother, growing up he did his thing, I did my thing.’
One great regret Phillips has is never saying goodbye to his mother, who passed away in 2005, one of the first things he did as a free man was visit her grave to pay his respects.
‘Prison officials notified me of my mother’s passing about five days after she actually died. I have no idea why they waited so long. We wrote letters back and forth over the years, but the last time I saw here was 45 years ago in the county jail for a three-minute visit in 1971.
‘I never really lost hope, I always thought at some point I was going to get out that was my survival technique. I kept telling myself God isn’t going to leave me to die in a place like this because I did nothing wrong to deserve it.
‘I keep my faith I got up every day and went through the motions just trying to stay alive.
‘The thing I wanted to do most of all is survive and not be put in the position to where I would have to kill or assault someone else to get more time.
Phillips revealed neither his two kids or wife visited him in his 45 years in prison. Above is a picture of his daughter Rita and son Richard that he had on his cell wall
The father of two has not yet reconnected with his children who were six and eight years old when he was incarcerated
One great regret Phillips has is never saying goodbye to his mother, who passed away in 2005, one of the first things he did as a free man was visit her grave to pay his respects
‘In prison you can get pushed all the way to the edge and so sometimes you have to defend yourself and do something just to stay alive.’
In 2010, Palombo went before a commutation hearing and told officials Phillips wasn’t involved in the murder.
A few years later Palombo’s attorney visited Phillips in prison and told him what Palombo said at the hearing. ‘I was glad to hear the news, but I was skeptical,’ he said.
Years later, the University of Michigan Innocence Clinic heard about his case and began fighting for his release in 2014.
The Innocence Clinic was granted an evidentiary hearing for Phillips last August where a judge overturned Phillips’s first-degree murder and murder conspiracy convictions.
Phillips said he was initially given a deal in which the prosecution would reduce his sentence to a second-degree murder charge and let him go as time served.
‘I told him I would rather die in prison that admit to a murder I did not do,’ Phillips said.
Last December a judge granted Phillips bail and prosecutors announced they were going to retry him for murder, but later dropped the murder charges on March 28, making Phillips a free man for the first time in more than four decades.
Phillips said the thing he missed the most during his incarceration was his children – who were eight and six at the time – and says he still hasn’t reconnected with them.
He recently found out from his ex-wife his eldest daughter has lived in France for the past 20 years and a 19-year-old grandson and 15-year-old granddaughter.
‘When I reconnect with my children I may not saying anything I just want to hold them in my arms. I just found out days ago I was a grandfather.’
Phillips is staying with a friend he met in jail outside of Detroit for now, where he survives $500 a month in social security and $89 in food stamps.
Phillips maybe entitled to receive state funds for the wrongfully convicted, under Michigan’s Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act, exonerated individuals may receive compensation through the Michigan Court of Claims at a rate of $50K a year for each year they spend in prison.
Phillips spent years in multiple prisons, but was released from said Dickerson Detention Center in Hamtramck, MI, last month
He could be entitled to as much as $2.25 million dollars but he isn’t holding his breath.
‘The money isn’t here yet, the state may decide to fight my case if they don’t think I’m deserving of the compensation. Hopefully that won’t happen for me.’
‘I’m not sure what my future holds for me, a job is out of the question. I’m at retirement age. I want to paint.’
As far as being the oldest exoneree in the United States he said: ‘It’s nothing to be proud of, who wants to have a record like that? It’s a stigma that I have to carry around for the rest of my life, but it’s not going to deter me from being happened and pursuing the rest of my life from some sort of enjoyment.’
‘I don’t know how I made it in prison, I never lost hope, I knew this day was going to come, I did know it was going to take 45 years.
He wants to purchase the home with the money he may receive from the state.
He’s lost a lot in the 45 years he was imprisoned, he’s never been on airplane. He’s frightened of flying but says he will fly to France to meet up with his daughter if needed to.
‘I’ll do anything to see my kids, it was the most thing I missed most in the 45 years I was gone. I had pictures of them hanging on my prison walls.
‘I missed them more than anything, even being with a women.
‘I’m not sure if they know if I’ve out of prison or not, everything is happening so fast. I’m finding out different things every day.
Phillips has missed a lot since his imprisonment.
He now has a Facebook account but is staying away from other social media. He isn’t familiar with Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram.
‘I’ve been away from everything for almost 50 years. It’s like being dropped off on Mars.’
He said he is happy to be out and when he was finally exonerated he felt a sense of relief, ‘I was finally free.’
But he did receive a bit of culture shock when he got out and saw the price of goods.
‘I knew they weren’t the same but now, there is a big difference.’
‘The last movie I saw outside before I went to prison was Shaft. I recently went to a movie theater and they had these big cushion lounge chairs where you can order food.
The city of Detroit has changed a lot in 45 years, the downtown area has changed for the better and the suburban area has changed for the worse.
‘I have yet to use an ATM machine and I don’t plan on buying things on the internet. But I do have a credit card and plan on paying my bills online. I’ve used an iPad, but not an actual computer since I’ve been out.’
Phillips isn’t counting out in finding love, ‘I’m looking for a special someone to spend my later years with, not just a fling.’
Sarah Krause one of the attorneys who helped Phillips get exonerated said: ‘I wonder how many other Richard Phillips there are out there.’
‘If I can just help one person with my story, I’ll be happy. Prison is full of guilty people, some will even tell you they did the crime, but I know for a fact there are some innocent people in prison. I’ve met some of them,’ he said.