From convicted sex offender to millionaire, man gets new life
DALLAS (CNN) — 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.