Freeze Frame on a Bad Cop

Still stuck in prison for three decades: the once famous, now forgotten, Bill Phillips

Phillips left the courtroom scowling when a mistrial was declared after the jury deadlocked 10 to 2 in favor of acquittal.

On the Pad ends at this point. But the outcome of a retrial appeared so in-the-bag for Phillips that the author speculated, "His future will be a new, unfamiliar job in a strange city and a personal life which has been so shattered it will be impossible to put back together again. . . . But Phillips will smile a lot, though. He'll have reason to. Almost anything is better than con-viction and prison."

The smiles stopped in 1974. A falling- out with F. Lee Bailey over money left Henry Rothblatt as Phillips's lawyer for the retrial. Phillips recalls that Rothblatt, who had a pencil-thin mustache and always wore bow ties, would pull the buttons off his own shirts and then sew them back on—in the courtroom. "The jury looked at this guy like he was fuckin' crazy," Phillips said.

photo: Jason Torres

With Rothblatt in charge, Phillips's defense went awry, and he was convicted of both murders and the attempted murder.

"Lee Bailey is one of the best defenders that ever worked a courtroom," Armstrong says. Referring to Phillips's second lawyer, who died in 1985, Armstrong adds, "To put it kindly, Rothblatt was not."

Before Phillips was sentenced, though, it seemed he might get a break. During the trial, a juror had sent his résumé to the Manhattan district attorney's office to apply for a job as an investigator. Jack Litman, who prosecuted the retrial, knew about it but didn't notify his boss, District Attorney Richard Kuh, until after the trial.

The case of the job-seeking juror's allegedly tainting the prosecution would eventually go all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it was argued by William Kuntsler, who lost a 6-3 decision.

Sentenced to 25 years to life, Phillips didn't accept it quietly, calling the prosecutors and judge "the most corrupted of the corrupt in this city." The case, he added at the time, was "the greatest frame job in the history of law enforcement."

Forget the theory. To this day, Armstrong believes Phillips is innocent.

"Sure, he's a tough guy, and I don't know whether he's capable of murder or not," Armstrong says. "But if he were, he's not capable of murder where he leaves a live witness."

After being shot, Gonzalez stumbled out of the apartment and ran into the killer, who was waiting for an elevator. The killer screamed at Gonzalez to get back into the apartment. Why would a guy who killed two people leave an eyewitness? Armstrong says that when he once asked Phillips what he would've done in that situation, Phillips replied, "Are you kidding? Me, I would have shot that fucker right between the eyes."

Before his conviction, Bill Phillips had spent one day in jail—right after he was indicted in 1972. In his book he recalled thinking, "I could never, never spend the rest of my life in fucking jail. . . . To be locked up like an animal in some fuckin' jail, I couldn't do it. I couldn't survive."

Phillips has not only survived in prison but, to the greatest extent possible, he has excelled.

Refusing to hide in protective custody, Phillips spent the first couple of years in Attica being "terrorized" every minute of every day, as he recalls.

What changed things around was, oddly enough, the law. Around 1978, he started studying it just as a way to pass time. Phillips was soon spending 15-hour days, seven days a week working on cases for fellow inmates.

"When you're doing this kind of work, you can't put it down," he says. "I would get one and live with it until it was done. Then get another one and live with it."

In short order, he went from the guy with the "big target" on his back to the guy no one had better touch. For many fellow inmates, he was now their chance at freedom.

He estimates he helped more than 80 inmates get out, mostly by finding technicalities that reduced their sentences. It's a claim that is impossible to check. But he was featured on CBS's Street Stories, which interviewed some of the inmates Phillips helped free.

"I've been championing the cause of the underdog in here," says Phillips. He feels that through his legal work and other good deeds, he has redeemed himself.

Like many others considered for parole, Phillips provides the board with a "résumé." His is two pages, single-spaced, to include all his activities, including membership in the Jaycees, a bachelor's degree from Empire State College, a master's with a 4.0 GPA from Buffalo State University, and certification in legal research. He has done charity work through an upstate Quaker group, received counseling from Mormons since 1990, and rewrote a prison's substance and alcohol abuse treatment program.

He has a standing offer to teach legal research at Manhattanville College and is set up—if he's ever released—to live in a Veterans Administration halfway house.

Phillips is also armed with letters from Whitman Knapp (now deceased), Armstrong, state judge Vincent Doyle, and a deputy prison superintendent, among others, supporting his release.

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