DALLAS — Michael Phillips has been spending most of his time these days living in a tiny room in a no-frills northeast Dallas nursing home.
Until recently, he had a roommate who slept in a bed 2 feet away, and staff brought him three square meals a day.
Only a few hours passed each day in which he didn’t think about his burden of four decades: being a convicted sex offender.
That was before Friday, when Phillips was officially exonerated by the Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins’ Conviction Integrity Unit, which determined via DNA testing that he was falsely convicted.
It was a first-of-its-kind exoneration in that Phillips wasn’t clamoring for vindication. As was the case when he accepted a plea deal in 1990, he felt that his race would preclude him from getting a fair shake in the justice system, so he just accepted his plight.
After entering his plea, Phillips, a 57-year-old African-American who grew up in New Orleans, served 12 years in a Texas prison for the rape of a 16-year-old white girl at a Dallas motel where he’d worked as a maintenance man.
Confined to a wheelchair due to his battle with sickle cell anemia, Phillips has been out of jail since 2002. He has been living in nursing homes the past few years as his health has spiraled downward.
Though he’s been out of prison for 12 years, he considers his life one long sentence, as he was forced to wear the branding of a convicted sex offender.
In his first week as a free man, Phillips is overjoyed and struggles to put his emotions into words, instead pointing to the spirituality that helped him cope all these years.
“A-W-E doesn’t describe the feeling. I don’t know if they got a word that describes how I feel. To have a leash taken off my neck and off my ankle, I know how my ancestors felt when they got free,” he said.
According to the Dallas Police Department report from September 28, 1990, the victim was awakened by a man wearing a black and white ski mask.
While struggling with the man and biting his hand several times, the victim told police, she pulled up her assailant’s mask and recognized him as Phillips, a man she had seen living at the motel.
The following month, detectives showed the victim a six-picture lineup, and she again identified Phillips as the man who raped her.
(The Dallas Police Department no longer presents photos side by side, because the district attorney’s office says it suggests that the perpetrator must be present and compels the victim to pick one.)
It didn’t help that Phillips had a record. In an interview with CNN, Phillips acknowledged committing a home burglary when he was 19.
“Being young and foolish, there were things you do that were juvenile,” he said.
But at 32, he was trying to make an honest living and was shocked to hear that he was being charged with a rape that he hadn’t committed. He feels that the prior burglary conviction and a “broken criminal justice system” were to blame for the bad advice he got next.
“The first paid public defender came in there and said, ‘Mr. Phillips, the DA went back and saw that you just got out of prison a couple of years ago, so they want to lock you up for 99 years.’ He thought he was doing me a favor. He said, ‘You could get life, so you are going to take this 99 years.’ ”
Eventually, another public defender convinced him to cut a deal and plead guilty in exchange for 12 years behind bars, rather than risk a trial. Fearing that a jury would not side with him after a white girl picked him out of a photo lineup, he took the deal, he said.
He recalled distinctly the words of one public defender.
“You are a black man. This is a young white girl who has been assaulted. You have an X on your back already. What do you think the chances are if you go before an all-white jury?” the defense lawyer asked.
“Aren’t you supposed to get a jury of your peers?” Phillips replied.
“Yeah, but it’s not going to happen.”
Phillips wonders today how many poor folks or people of color were denied a chance at justice in Dallas.
“(The system) is really broke down so bad. It’s like I’m going to stab you and cut you from the neck down to your navel, and all I do is put a Band-Aid across it and tell you that you are going to be all right,” he said. “That’s how the justice system is, because all of them young black men that are getting arrested, they are doomed once the police slap the handcuffs on them and put them in the back of a police car.”
A living hell
The youngest of nine children, Phillips is close with his family. Two of his older siblings are still alive, and he is tight with his oldest sister’s children, who live in Dallas.
After his release from prison, Phillips tried to stay with his sister, but once people in the neighborhood found out his history, they put signs on her door and front yard.
“It’s hard to have people look at you sideways and upside-down and cross-eyed and roll their eyes at you,” Phillips said.
His niece and nephew, Karen Collins and Keith Wilkerson, concede that they didn’t know for sure he was innocent. Phillips was embarrassed by the past and didn’t bring it up, they said.
“He never talked about it, and I can say that it’s not like him to do something like that, but him not talking about it gave me doubt,” Collins said.
After he got out of prison, they said, Phillips struggled to make ends meet, picking up odd jobs as a handyman to pay rent on small apartments. He was forced to move around a lot, and he always had a hard time finding new places to live.
“He just took what life gave him. He was a passive person, not a fighter, which makes it ironic that he was charged with a violent crime,” Collins said. “And the sentence didn’t stop when he was out. It just made it more visible to the outside world because he was a sex offender.
“He had to deal with the discrimination of being limited to where he could live and work. Where can you get a job?” the niece said.
Last year, Phillips was booted from a nursing home because the staff found out he carried sex offender status, Wilkerson said.
Phillips said he felt helpless: “I didn’t have any say in any of my life. You have that label. You have that sticker on your front and back. Bad enough you have to do 12 years for something you didn’t do. Now you have to do something for the rest of your life. You have to report.”
Now exonerated, Phillips says he’s going to focus on dealing with his other sentence: sickle cell anemia.
“It’s a war. The older I get, the worse this disease gets. I’m fighting a war with my body,” he said.
Even with this battle at hand, his niece and nephew say they are excited to see him take it on without the burden of his conviction.
“His entire life has been held down and limited. The sky is the limit now,” Collins said.
Phillips’ case is the 34th exoneration by the Dallas District Attorney’s Office since the 2007 advent of the Conviction Integrity Unit.
The unit is a long-term project that screens untested rape kits by reviewing DNA databases that are preserved by the Southwest Institute of Forensic Sciences.
It is essentially using DNA testing to conduct an audit of all convictions in Dallas County for which testing may prove the guilt or innocence of a defendant.
So far, they have tackled only sexual assault convictions from 1990 that meet the following criteria:
• There was biological evidence available that included seminal fluid.
• There was only one rapist (cases with biological samples from more than one person are much harder to work with).
• The attacker’s identity was in dispute at the time of the conviction.
According to the district attorney, Phillips is the first DNA exoneration in the United States that was identified by a systematic search of old criminal convictions, as opposed to a challenge by a defendant or any other party.
“Mr. Phillips is very lucky that we tested rape kits from the year in which the heinous crime took place,” Watkins said in a written statement. “DNA tells the truth, so this was another case of eyewitness misidentification where one individual’s life was wrongfully snatched and a violent criminal was allowed to go free.
“We apologize to Michael Phillips for a criminal justice system that failed him.”
The semen found in the rape kit was put into the FBI’s combined DNA Index System. It matched the sample of another man who also lived at the motel where the rape took place, the district attorney’s office said, but that person can’t be prosecuted because the statute of limitations has expired.
Assistant District Attorney Russell Wilson, who heads the Conviction Integrity Unit, had the task of driving out of state to tell the victim Phillips was the not the man who raped her.
“She was very distraught and cried quite a bit. She said she couldn’t believe she picked the wrong person out of the photo lineup and felt horrible about that. The victim also said she never got over the sexual assault and had seven dogs because she always feared someone was going to kick down her door like the night of the rape at the motel,” Wilson said.
“She broke down again upon learning we cannot prosecute the real perpetrator due to the statute of limitations.”
Phillips does not hold a grudge against the woman who was responsible for his fate. Like him, she was a victim whose life was turned upside-down, he said.
“I pray for her, I forgive her, and I bless her.”
‘Huge racial disproportion’
Samuel Gross, a University of Michigan law professor and editor of the National Registry of Exonerations, says he persuaded Watkins’ office to start this project several years ago and has worked as an adviser on the legal team ever since.
A 2012 National Registry of Exonerations study found that among rape exonerations with eyewitness misidentifications, most involved a white victim and African-American assailant.
“That’s huge racial disproportion,” Gross said. “In most rapes, the attacker and the victim are of the same race. Rapes with white victims and black rapists are less than 10% of the total. So why do they make up a majority of rape cases in which innocent defendants are exonerated? I think the most powerful reason is the difficulty identifying strangers of a different race.”
Psychological experiments bear this out, Gross said, “and in the United States, the biggest problem is Caucasians have a much harder time identifying African-Americans than identifying members of our own race.”
Gross hopes the successes in Dallas create a road map to reproduce similar results in other jurisdictions, he said.
“We should do it, to the extent possible, because there may be a lot of innocent defendants who were convicted of terrible crimes who we could identify but who have just given up or moved on as best they can. Also, this sort of project might teach us lessons about the causes of wrongful convictions that we would never learn from other exonerations,” Gross said.
Phillips is pleased Watkins and his unit are trying to help the many innocent men he met while incarcerated. Watkins and his team say they will continue fighting to free them.
“On one hand, this was like finding a needle in a haystack, because Michael Phillips had given up on pressing his claim of innocence, but on the other hand, this was a methodical approach that can be replicated nationwide,” Watkins said. “Untested rape kits should not just sit on a shelf and collect dust. The exoneration continues to expose the past weakness in our criminal justice system.”
Newly minted millionaire
Last week’s exoneration not only clears Phillips’ name and his credit report, it will also make him a wealthy man.
Texas law awards an exoneree $80,000 for each year of wrongful incarceration, so Phillips will get a lump sum of $960,000 and then $80,000 a year for as long as he lives.
Texas also offers exonerees state-run health insurance and a free education, if they choose.
His family is planning to throw a big party for him this weekend, complete with barbecue, music and lots of joyous embraces.
Beyond that, all Phillips knows for sure about the future is that he is going to move out of his nursing home, buy a new vehicle and go to the dentist.
“The first thing I am going to do is get a Ford pickup truck and a house. Or I might just hit the road. You got 50 states. I might just hit the road and visit the rest of the country. I dreamed of going to China and walking on the Great Wall of China,” he said.
Phillips has contemplated these possibilities for some time, never thinking that it was possible that his “crazy daydreams” could one day become reality.
But before he’s done with his interview, he goes back to his original message. Leaning on an old Dorothy Love Coates gospel tune, he wants to make sure we know what he is really thankful for.
“Hang on to your faith. The Father works in his own time, and like the good song says: He may not come when you want to, but He’s always on time.”