Bill Phillips has spent the past 32 autumns in a series of picturesque upstate towns but has never seen one leaf turn or picked a single apple. The rogue cop became the star witness in the historic Knapp Commission and then was convicted of murder in what he calls a “frame job” for having ratted on fellow cops. Every other September since 1999, he has experienced a personal fall: Parole denied. Again and again and again. And again.
But in a stunning 2-1 decision late this September, the 77-year-old Phillips was finally granted parole.
Profiled last year in the Voice (“Freeze Frame on a Bad Cop,” August 15), Phillips was a high-living cop on the take until 1970, when he was busted for shaking down future “Happy Hooker” Xaviera Hollander. To save his skin, Phillips went undercover, recording evidence for the Knapp Commission’s probe of police corruption. Phillips starred in three days of televised hearings in 1971 that took the public behind the blue wall of silence.
He revealed that nearly everything was negotiable with the boys in blue—a $2 payout from a bodega owner wanting to skirt the blue laws, or protection money from gamblers and pimps, or bribes to make arrests disappear.
Though his decision to cooperate initially saved Phillips from a couple of years in jail, it ultimately landed him behind bars for decades.
Detective John Justy contended that after he saw Phillips testify on TV, he thought he looked like the composite drawing of a suspect in the three-year-old double murder of a pimp and prostitute. Phillips has always contended that the murder case against him was payback for his being a Knapp rat.
After a mistrial in 1972, when the jurors deadlocked 10 to 2 for acquittal, Phillips was finally convicted of murder two years later and sentenced to 25 years to life.
On September 19, at the Fishkill Correctional Facility, Phillips made his plea to the parole board for the fifth time, bringing with him his clean record: In his three decades in prison, he has never had a disciplinary violation and has earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees. He’s done charity work through various religious and community groups (he’s even a Jaycee) and rewrote the substance- and alcohol-abuse treatment program for one warden. By 2005, even a former chairman of the parole board had conceded that Phillips was a “model prisoner”—right before denying him parole.
A noted jailhouse lawyer, Phillips claims to have helped 80 other inmates get their sentences reduced or overturned. But to win his own parole, he had to publicly disavow his stance that he had been framed.
Phillips told the Voice last year that he had to put his pride aside “because I didn’t do it, but if I tell them that I’m never getting out.” However, he still had to overcome the board’s routine excuse that the “crime severity” justified his continued incarceration.
“The one thing Bill Phillips can never change is the severity of the crime,” says attorney Ron Kuby, a William Kunstler protégé who has been working on the case since he was a law student in 1982.
Phillips got his hopes up in 2005, when a Manhattan State Supreme Court judge called the board’s “crime severity” standard “arbitrary and capricious” and ordered it to give Phillips another hearing unless it could give a fairer reason for denying him parole. A state appellate court, however, overturned the judge’s ruling, in essence giving the board free rein to keep denying Phillips his freedom.
That’s what made the recent turn of events even more astonishing. Two days after the hearing, parole-board member Lisa Beth Elovich penned an opinion familiar to Phillips, calling his release “incompatible with the welfare of society” and adding, “Your crime severity violated the trust of society and the oath that you were sworn to uphold.”
But the two other board members, Tom Grant and Sally Thompson, overruled Elovich. Neither of them issued a written opinion. They merely stipulated three conditions of release that, given Phillips’s age and health problems (he’s lost an eye to cancer, had prostate cancer, and suffered a stroke), seem almost comical: Phillips is required to seek or obtain employment or enroll in an academic or vocational program, abide by a curfew, and participate in anti-aggression/anti-violence counseling.
Kuby says it’s unclear whether Phillips’s parole signals a change of course now that Eliot Spitzer is governor. Under George Pataki, the parole board was sued for its overly rigid and unyielding rules on whom to release.
After the board’s surprising decision, Kuby says, Phillips told him: “This wasn’t a gift—I earned this over the past 32 years. I worked hard to change who I was, and I earned this parole. No one gave it to me.”
When Phillips is freed on November 9, Kuby adds, the first thing he wants is a Big Mac. Anything must look good after 32 years of prison food.