WASHINGTON -- Richard L. Phillips has learned a lot about the law in the decades since a Madera County murder landed him on California’s death row.
Now, with a nudge from the U.S. Supreme Court, the 63-year-old Phillips will try again to save his own life.
In a case study of legal persistence, he’s secured another trial for part of a crime that occurred nearly 36 years ago. His murder conviction is not in question, but his future is. For that, he can credit the Supreme Court, which effectively gave Phillips another chance when it rejected a petition from California’s attorney general.
“It was quite a testament to his legal abilities,” Fresno defense attorney Katherine L. Hart said.
Hart is Phillips’ legal adviser. Now 70, she’s been helping Phillips with his myriad appeals since 1988. Her work has proven crucial. Still, it was Phillips who wrote the 10-page Supreme Court legal brief – with a declared “business address” of San Quentin State Prison – that countered California’s top law enforcement officer.
In late April, the Supreme Court declined to grant California Attorney General Kamala Harris’ petition on Phillips’ case. That denial, issued without explanation, upheld a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision that set aside Phillips’ death sentence. The initial steps toward a retrial in Madera County Superior Court have begun.
“It’s remarkable. You might have a battery of lawyers working for you, and not have the same success,” Hart said, calling Phillips “very intelligent, very persistent and very demanding.”
Phillips was convicted of killing one man and burning another. While these convictions stand, prosecutors have opted to try him again on the “special circumstances” that made him eligible for the death penalty.
“I do plan on pursuing a retrial,” Madera County District Attorney Michael Keitz said Wednesday. “It’s the right thing to do.”
In December 1977, a jury later concluded, Phillips lured two men to a deserted lot south of Chowchilla, about 35 miles northwest of Fresno, with the promise of stolen insulation material. The two were building contractors who’d previously joined Phillips on an unconsummated cocaine deal.
In the late-night meeting, a jury determined, Phillips killed Bruce P. Bartulis and wounded Ronald Rose with five shots from a .45-caliber pistol. Phillips then poured gasoline over the two men, set them on fire and hit Rose with his car before fleeing, prosecutors said. Rose survived, with burns over 65 percent of his body. He later testified against Phillips, as did Phillips’ former girlfriend, Sharon L. Colman.
After the murder, appellate Judge Andrew Kleinfeld added last year, Phillips “put out contracts to kill” several potential witnesses, although the judge added “they also failed to die on his schedule.”
The role played by Colman and then-Madera County District Attorney David Minier set in motion the subsequent appeals.
Colman, who was 19 at the time of the murder, testified that she hadn’t been promised any benefits in exchange for testimony. Minier said the same thing, calling the suggestion “sheer fabrication, just pulled out of the air, totally meaningless.”