For nearly a quarter of a century, Michael Phillips has been suffering the catastrophic effects of being convicted of a crime he didn’t commit.
In 1990, the 57-year-old black man was arrested and charged with the rape of a 16-year-old white girl. The rape occurred at a Dallas motel where he had worked as a maintenance man.
Phillips was arrested based on eyewitness testimony from the victim, who said that she pulled off her attacker’s ski mask and saw his face. In a line-up, the victim identified Phillips as the man who raped her.
He accepted a plea because, according to CNN, “he felt that his race would preclude him from getting a fair shake in the justice system.”
According to Phillips, one public defender told him, “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 fact that Phillips had a record of home burglary, committed 13 years earlier when he was 19, also didn’t help his case.
Several public defenders advised him to take the plea deal, stressing that he was facing life in prison. As a result, Phillips served 12 years in a Texas prison, after which he was released.
Another 12 years later, Phillips was exonerated through DNA evidence tested by the Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins’ Conviction Integrity Unit. This unit screens untested rape kits in cases where the defendant’s innocence or guilt could be proven by DNA. Phillips’s case was the 34th exoneration found by this unit since 2007—an alarmingly high number.
His case, reports CNN, is the first of its kind because Phillips was not petitioning to have his conviction overturned. Instead, Phillips was quietly living in a small Dallas nursing home when he got the news.
Unfortunately, even after completing his prison sentence, he was haunted by the conviction. As a registered sex offender, he was limited to where he could work and live. He had trouble getting a job and struggled to make ends meet. He tried living with his sister, but he was driven out by the neighbors once they found out about his past. Just this past year, he was ejected from a nursing home once they found out about his status as a sex offender.
Phillips says that he forgives the woman who misidentified him, saying that she was a victim as well.
Phillips was wrongfully robbed of years of his life—something that can never be repaid. However, he will receive $80,000 from the state of Texas for every year that he was incarcerated, which comes to $960,000, along with $80,000 every year for the rest of his year.
For Phillips, a sickle cell patient who is wheelchair-bound, this money will certainly help him get the health care he needs. With the money, he also plans to move out of the nursing home, buy a new vehicle, and visit the dentist.
Cases like these show the failures of the criminal justice system and the importance of getting knowledgeable advice from experienced criminal defense attorneys. Even if you are charged with a crime and are innocent, you should not assume that you will be set free.