Thirty-three years is a long time to serve in prison for a murder you did not commit. Just ask 92-year-old Bill Phillips.
Decades ago, Phillips was considered one of the most notorious double murderers in the city of New York. In a midtown Manhattan brothel, he allegedly murdered a pimp and a prostitute, shooting them at close range, and attempted to kill a third person, who was shot and survived.
The murders took place on Christmas Eve, 1968. It was an incident that received scant attention in the press and even less attention from the New York City Police Department. At a time when the city’s murder rate was skyrocketing each and every year, the killing of a couple of inconsequential street hustlers was of little concern to the average Joe, much less to the high and mighty. The case sat unsolved and gathering dust, and likely would have continued to do so were it not for the fact that, three years after the murders, the face of Bill Phillips appeared on television screens across the city.
The year was 1971, and Phillips, a 14-year veteran of the police department, made headlines as the primary witness at the Knapp Commission hearings on corruption in the NYPD. For the better part of three days, Phillips, then 42, sat under the glare of klieg lights and exposed the NYPD as it had never been exposed before. Unlike Frank Serpico, the clean cop who famously blew the whistle on corruption, appeared before the Knapp Commission, and became the subject of a revered movie starring Al Pacino (Serpico, 1974), Phillips was a crooked cop who got caught in the act by investigators and was compelled to air the department’s dirty laundry in exchange for qualified immunity. The hearings were televised live, gavel to gavel, on the local PBS affiliate, and excerpts were shown frequently on the national evening news.
While Serpico had come forward as a clean cop who refused to submit to corruption, Phillips not only submitted, he excelled as a corrupt cop, making what he called “scores” on a near-daily basis. He took bribes from numbers runners, bookies, whorehouses, and illegal gambling establishments; he extorted money from bars, restaurants, and regular citizens through bogus arrests and citations; he accepted stolen merchandise and allowed people to buy their way out of parking tickets and other violations. Phillips made sure the illegal proceeds of his various schemes got kicked up the chain of command. As he said at the time, “Pretty much every division of the department was on the pad, to one degree or another.”
New Yorkers of a certain age will remember what happened next. Within weeks of the Knapp Commission issuing its final report on police corruption, Bill Phillips was indicted for a three-year-old cold case, the brutal double homicide of a pimp, Jimmy Smith (aka Jimmy Goldberg), and Sharon Stango, a 19-year-old prostitute, and the attempted murder of Charles Gonzalez, a client of Stango’s.
Phillips proclaimed his innocence. He might have been a corrupt cop, he admitted, but he was no homicidal maniac.
In 1972 and 1974, there were two murder trials: the first ended in a hung jury, 10 to 2 in favor of acquittal. Phillips was so certain of a successful second trial that he went ahead with the publication of a book, On the Pad: The Underworld and Its Corrupt Police, the Confessions of a Cop on the Take, co-written by Leonard Shecter. The book, a bracingly frank and picaresque presentation of Phillips’s exploits, was released in 1973, between the two trials.
But to his shock and dismay, at the second trial, Phillips was found guilty. Judge Harold Birns (who died in 1982) showed no mercy: Phillips was sentenced to a term of 25 years to life on the first murder count, 20 years to life on the second murder count, and 8 to 25 years for attempted murder, with all three sentences to run concurrently. It seemed unlikely that the disgraced former detective would ever see the light of day outside prison walls.
While incarcerated, Phillips continued to tell whoever would listen that he had been framed by forces within the NYPD, because of his devastating testimony before the Knapp Commission. One person who believed Phillips was Ron Kuby, who at the time was a young law student working in the office of William Kuntsler, the renowned criminal defense lawyer. Kuntsler had agreed to take Phillips’s case on appeal. He assigned Kuby the task of putting together a writ of habeas corpus on the case.
“I looked at the evidence and then interviewed Phillips in prison,” Kuby recently told me, in his law office on West 23rd Street, in Manhattan. “It was clear to Kuntsler, and to me, that Billy didn’t do the murders. But what made the case so fascinating was that, with most wrongful conviction cases, they involve cops creating evidence against somebody they believe to be completely guilty, as a way of putting extra frosting on the cake so the accused can’t beat the case. With Phillips, it was the only time I can remember where I believe the cops actually went out and framed somebody to specifically get that person. So that was all remarkable stuff.”
In May, Kuby filed a request with the Manhattan D.A.’s Post-Conviction Justice Unit (PCJU), created just a month previous by District Attorney Alvin Bragg, to have Phillips’s conviction overturned. In his letter to the PCJU, Kuby cited an explosive new piece of evidence—an internal police memo, known as a DD5, showing that detectives had been given an anonymous tip about possible killers of the pimp and prostitute way back in 1969. In the DD5, these suspects are named. Not only did police fail to follow up on this tip, the memo was never shown to defense lawyers for Phillips. (No explanation for why detectives ignored the evidence has ever surfaced; one might speculate that the case was so low priority it wasn’t aggressively pursued and that later, when the Phillips murder theory surfaced and gathered steam, they buried the memo.) Until it was uncovered three years ago by a tireless 78-year-old retired cop named Andy Rosenzweig, who took it upon himself to investigate the Phillips case, it was not known that the memo existed.
Kuby believes it’s the smoking gun that will blow open one of the most storied murder convictions in the city’s history.
These days, Bill Phillips lives in Oregon, in a retirement home, and he speaks in the strained whisper of a nonagenarian. “Hey, how ya doin’?” he asks, when I reach him on the phone, his wispy voice still redolent of the borough of Queens, where he was born and raised. I ask him how it felt when, a few years ago, he first learned about the DD5 that had been discovered, proving, presumably, that he did not receive a fair trial. “Oh, man,” he says. “I wanted to jump up and down.” It’s hard to imagine Phillips, at his age, jumping up and down, but the turn of phrase certainly captured his current mood upon hearing that his case was being submitted for review.
I first met Bill Phillips 10 and a half years ago, in late 2011. At the time, he had recently been paroled from prison. He was 81, in surprisingly good shape and mentally acute despite his long, debilitating incarceration (while inside, Phillips underwent two prostate surgeries and lost an eye to a malignant tumor).
I didn’t believe that he had done the murders. Earlier that year, I had published a book, The Savage City, that dealt in part with Phillip’s corrupt police career, his cooperation with the Knapp Commission, and his two murder trials. Primarily, the book was a nonfiction account of racial hostilities in the 1960s and early ’70s, manifested as a low-grade guerilla war between the NYPD and the Black Power movement. Phillips’s story was central to the thematic fabric of the book, as I sought to convey how corruption deeply embedded in the police culture determined how the NYPD responded to being challenged on any level, including physical attacks on officers from the BLA (Black Liberation Army) and public exposure through the Knapp Commission hearings.
Living in a modest apartment in Ossining, a small town 40 miles north of New York City, Phillips was, at the time—despite his infirmities—still full of vim and vinegar. He had lost little of the personality, profane street humor, and prodigious skills as a raconteur that had made him so popular when he was a hustler/cop. His ability to recall the details of his career and legal downfall was impressive. Though it had been 40 years since he was convicted, Phillips recalled the precise moment when the jury foreman pronounced his guilt: “My knees buckled. I swear to Christ, they buckled like an old fuckin’ horse. I thought, Holy fuckin’ shit. Look at this.”
“I always believed in doing things the easy way. You got somebody by the balls, you don’t need to twist his arm. You say, ‘Here’s the deal. We got you on this summons. You’re gonna pay a big fine, or go to jail, unless you deal with us. So what you wanna do?’ It was usually very easy. You don’t have to beat anybody up.”
In the beginning, prison was, for the now infamous cop, star of the televised Knapp Commission hearings, a living hell. Phillips told me, “When I got to Attica, I didn’t hide. Went right into the general population. When I walked out to the yard, every fuckin’ head turned and looks at me: ‘What is this guy, out of his fuckin’ mind?’ Nobody came near me. I just sat with my back against the wall and watched TV. Then, little by little, I got a few friends. But it was a fuckin’ nightmare. Come back to my cell every day, I’d close the door and say, ‘Whew, I made it through another day.’ But I knew the door was gonna open in the morning, and I was gonna have to go back out there.”
Phillips was a Korean War veteran, a trained pilot who, at the height of his years of corruption, owned a fleet of Cessna airplanes. He had been the consummate moneymaker as a dirty cop, a streetwise player, but he wasn’t really a tough guy. In prison, he had to develop a new persona and take the initiative. “A few guys got in my face, but [the hostility] was mostly behind my back. One time, there were three or four guys breaking balls and so forth. I’d heard this was going on behind my back. So I picked out the leader of the group, and I says to the guy, ‘Can I talk to you?’ I had two shanks. I says, ‘Look, I hear you’re breaking my balls, and I don’t appreciate it. All this backstabbing and other shit behind my back. I don’t really give a fuck. You want to come at me right now? You do what you gotta do. I got something for you, and I got something for me. ‘Cause I’ll stab the shit out of you and then put a shank in your hand, and I’ll never do an extra day. So what do you want to do?’ He says, ‘Oh, listen, it ain’t that way.’ I says, “Oh, it ain’t that way, huh? Well, you go fuck yourself. You and your friends stay at least 10 fuckin’ feet away from me, you son of a bitch.’”
In 1999, after serving 25 years, Phillips first became eligible for parole. Every two years after that, he would go before the New York State parole board and make the case for his release. During his incarceration—despite the precarious reality of being a Caucasian former cop amongst a prison population that was 70% people of color—Phillips was never once cited for a disciplinary infraction. After the initial hostilities, he settled in and was, by any measure, an exemplary inmate. At Attica prison, and later the Auburn State Correctional Facility, he studied law and became a jailhouse lawyer. He served seven consecutive terms on the Inmate Grievance Resolution Committee. In 1986, he was elected chairman of the Lifer’s Committee, where he served for over 15 years. He was also vice president of the Inmate Liaison Committee. His efforts were admired by many, including prison officials, lawyers, and others who appreciated his efforts on behalf of those living in an often inhumane, dysfunctional system. The parole board was impressed, but it was made clear to Phillips that he would never be granted parole unless he was willing to admit to the murders of Smith and Stango.
When I met Phillips, he had relented and claimed to have done the murders and conveyed the requisite remorse. The strategy worked. In 2008, he was released from prison, still a convicted murderer with a notorious past—but he was now a free man.
But by the time we connected, Phillips was reasserting the claim that he did not commit the murders. “Anyone who looks closely at my case knows I didn’t do those murders,” he says.
To go back in time to the era of the Knapp Commission hearings requires a leap of imaginary excavation. It may help that now classic movies such as Serpico, The French Connection, and Prince of the City immortalized New York’s undercurrent of menace and corruption, which was as common as the Daily Special at one of the city’s ubiquitous Greek diners. The assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were still fresh. The Vietnam War was in the process of reaching its ignoble conclusion. The civil rights movement of the early- and mid-1960s, with its philosophy of nonviolent resistance, had splintered, with a younger, more militant faction (the Black Panthers and, later, the Black Liberation Army) going head to head with police departments all around the country. President Richard Nixon was in the process of winning a second term. On the heels of the Knapp Commission hearings, five political operatives were arrested in Washington, D.C., for breaking into the headquarters of the Democratic Party National Committee, on the sixth floor of the Watergate Hotel and Office complex. The song “Slipping into Darkness,” by the band War, released in November 1971, evoked the spirit of the times.
In the midst of all this, the Knapp Commission hearings unfolded like a black-and-white public-access version of Robespierre’s tribunals before the Paris Commune. As star witness, Phillips was nobody’s idea of a knight in shining armor or an untainted whistleblower, but few could deny that his testimony was a revelation. No one had ever publicly breached the Blue Wall of Silence to the degree that Phillips would do it. The Knapp Commission had been instituted by Mayor John Lindsay, who was embarrassed when accusations of widespread corruption in the police department made by Officer Frank Serpico wound up in a series of stories in The New York Times. Whitman Knapp, at the time a corporate lawyer with political connections, was appointed to head a committee with subpoena power to investigate the subject of institutional malfeasance in the NYPD.
Committee investigators stumbled onto the activities of Phillips almost by accident. With the help of an ethically challenged surveillance expert named Teddy Ratnoff (think of Allen Garfield’s by turns smarmy and wheedling character in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, a cinematic signifier of the era’s paranoia), Knapp Commission investigators were looking into police payoffs at various houses of prostitution in midtown Manhattan. Ratnoff was hired by Xaviera Hollander, a madame who was writing a book about her activities, with Robin Moore, an established nonfiction author (The French Connection: A True Account of Cops, Narcotics, and International Conspiracy). Moore and Hollander thought it would be a good idea to surreptitiously record prostitutes and their johns, so the dialogue in their book would be authentic. Ratnoff recommended to Hollander a dirty cop he knew named Bill Phillips, who would be the ideal person to handle her illegal payoffs to the NYPD, which made it possible for her to stay in operation.
Ratnoff introduced the madame to the master dirty cop. The three of them constituted a sleazy consortium of players who, as Phillips would later reveal, were typical of how police business was conducted in the city at the time. What Phillips didn’t know was that, as he regularly met with Ratnoff to chat and to receive Hollander’s cash payoffs at P.J. Clarke’s saloon, on Third Avenue and East 55th Street (Phillips’s favorite watering hole and de facto headquarters), the surveillance expert was wearing a wire. Ratnoff was working as an operative for the Knapp Commission.
By the time investigators moved in on the compromised cop, in a classic sting operation, he was almost relieved. As Phillips explained to me on the phone all these years later, “I knew that one day I was going to get caught, and I didn’t care. I had become disgusted with myself. [Out on the street,] my morals went right down the sewer. I wasn’t happy with the way I turned out to be, having to live a hidden life. My family didn’t know; my wife didn’t know. Hiding money all the time. And of course, you get a little leery. Your phone rings at three or four in the morning, that kind of shit. You know it ain’t gonna last forever. Something’s gonna go haywire.”
After getting caught, Phillips went to work for the Commission as an undercover operative, wearing a wire (ironically) provided by Ratnoff, the man who had entrapped him. Phillips gathered evidence on other corrupt cops and criminals who were paying bribes to police.
Among other things, the Knapp Commission hearings became famous for its detailing of “grass eaters” and “meat eaters,” i.e., cops who looked the other way and allowed corruption to happen, occasionally grazing the illegal gratuities, or cops who aggressively pursued payoffs via protection rackets and extortion of either criminals or regular citizens.
As a witness, Phillips detailed it all. He was confident, dashingly handsome, and articulate. In 2012, Mike Armstrong, chief counsel for the Knapp Commission, the man who handled Phillips as an undercover operative and prepared his public testimony, published a book about his years with the Commission. Armstrong wrote: “As good as he had been as an undercover operative, Phillips was an even better witness. A consummate showman, he knew exactly how he should come across, and played his role perfectly. I had never met anyone who could outdo Phillips as a raconteur.… As mesmerizing as he was over drinks as an undercover agent at a bar, he was more so on the witness stand. Toning down his normal act by a notch or two, he spoke in quiet, respectful tones.… He spoke with a monotonous ring of authority underlined by an obvious command of the facts. There could be no question that he knew exactly what he was talking about. He was utterly believable.”
“I’m not sure I would’ve believed that the department was capable of framing Bill Phillips had I not had to come to terms with the possibility that they allowed Serpico to get shot.”
The all-encompassing implications of Phillips’s testimony stunned the citizenry, none more so than corrupt members of the NYPD, who saw their code of silence—akin to the Mafia’s omertà—breached. As Armstrong wrote, “I doubt if there was a single precinct house in the city that did not have a television set tuned in to Bill Phillips testimony.”
The NYC police commissioner at the time, Patrick V. Murphy, was so alarmed that he went on the department communications system; speaking to every patrol car and precinct in the city, Murphy announced, “Why should the best police department in the world feel it necessary to be defensive over the self-serving statements of a rogue cop?” He urged all cops not to be discouraged “because one or another traitor to the uniform that you wear so proudly seeks to justify his own dishonesty by pretending none of you is honest.”
The commissioner’s statement almost sounded like a call to action. One detective who took Murphy’s words to heart was John Justy, a 16-year veteran. Justy was the detective assigned to the 17th Precinct Homicide Division, which, back in 1968, first caught the murder case of Jimmy Smith and Sharon Stango and the shooting of Charles Gonzalez. Justy would claim that while watching Phillips testify on television, he was struck by how similar the witness looked to a composite drawing that had been created of the assailant. The drawing had been based on conversations with surviving witness Gonzalez, from his hospital bed, where he described his shooter as “Italian-looking, with a pock-marked complexion.”
Neither the composite drawing nor Gonzalez’s description resembled Phillips, who is of Irish descent with a smooth complexion. Nonetheless, detectives and prosecutors moved forward with a murder case against Phillips.
The cops—and, especially, John Justy—had a compelling motivation. One of the unforeseen casualties of Phillips’s testimony at the hearings was a veteran police lieutenant named Eddie McNamara. After hearing Phillips spill the beans on dozens of cops, leading to indictments of more than 30 officers as a result, McNamara became despondent. Although Phillips never mentioned McNamara by name, he did discuss seeking to fix an illegal check-cashing case for a boyfriend of Hollander’s. He described approaching “a lieutenant in the First Precinct” to fix the case. Phillips was not wearing a wire on that particular day, but Lt. McNamara didn’t know that. He thought he was fucked.
Within days of Phillips’s testimony, McNamara, who was a wheeler-dealer involved in many scams, put a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger.
Among the city’s brotherhood of cops, the lieutenant’s suicide was salt in the wound, especially for John Justy, who had once been McNamara’s partner. Phillips’s betrayal of the department’s code of omertà had now turned personal.
At trial, the main witness against Phillips was Gonzalez, who, after first failing to pick Phillips out of a police line-up, was now convinced that the shady cop was the man who shot Smith and Stango and left him for dead. “I would remember that face anywhere,” he said from the stand. The motive given for the murders was that Smith, the pimp, was in debt to Phillips for a $1,000 protection payment, and that Phillips had lost patience with the pimp and decided to kill everyone in sight.
At his second trial, Phillips took the stand and explained how on the night of the murders—Christmas Eve—he and his wife had made the rounds to the homes of family and friends, having drinks and dispensing Christmas gifts. His wife and relatives took the stand and corroborated his testimony.
Even more urgently, Phillips reiterated on the stand, and after the trial—and to me, decades later—that to ruthlessly murder somebody who owed him money was incomprehensible. “It was never my style. Never,” he told me. “I always believed in doing things the easy way. You got somebody by the balls, you don’t need to twist his arm. You say, ‘Here’s the deal. We got you on this summons. You’re gonna pay a big fine, or go to jail, unless you deal with us. So what you wanna do?’ It was usually very easy. You don’t have to beat anybody up. I’m gonna beat somebody up for money? What, are you crazy? In my whole career, where’s the violence? Out of nowhere, I’m gonna go over and execute two people up close, in the most brutal fashion?”
Armstrong, the Knapp Commission’s lead counsel, did not believe that Phillips committed the murders. He wrote a letter to the presiding judge, stating his position.
Decades later, I interviewed Armstrong for The Savage City. “Was Bill Phillips a corrupt cop?” Armstrong asked, rhetorically. “Absolutely. He was the consummate meat-eater. But most anybody who ever met the man will tell you they don’t believe he committed those murders.”
Like most others who lived this history, Armstrong is no longer around. The Knapp Commission’s lead counsel died of natural causes in 2019, at the age of 89.
The DD5 that Phillips and his advocates hope will clear his name was discovered by Detective Andy Rosenzweig eight years after his retirement as an investigator with the Manhattan D.A.’s office. The Phillips case had always gnawed at Rosenzweig. He came on the force in 1966, at a time when the kind of corrupt behavior Phillips detailed at the hearings was commonplace. When Serpico, and then Phillips, came forward as whistleblowers, Rosenzweig was in awe of their courage, particularly since he had chosen to keep his mouth shut in the face of corruption that he either saw or heard about in his years on the force. “I wanted to have a career as a police officer, and I knew that to speak out would have ended that,” he explained in a recent phone interview.
As a cop of Jewish descent, born and raised in the Bronx, Rosenzweig always felt like an outsider in a department made up mostly of Irish and Italian Catholics. Having come up through the ranks at a time of intense social turmoil, he had benefited from the wise counsel of a friendly veteran detective, who told him, “Keep your head down, always do what you think is right, and don’t worry about the rest.”
“It was a heavy time to be a cop,” says Rosenzweig. “Especially if you’re interested in keeping your nose clean and trying to do the job the way it should be done.” (Rosenzweig’s career is partially chronicled in A Cold Case, a 2000 New Yorker magazine article, and, in 2001, a book, by Philip Gourevitch.)
In 1971, not long before Phillips testified in front of the Knapp Commission, Rosenzweig was promoted to sergeant and was, for a time, being considered for an assignment to the Special Investigations Unit (SIU), the department’s premier narcotics unit. Rosenzweig told his recruiter, “Chief, if I caught a cop selling a case or selling drugs, anything like that, I’d lock them up myself.” The chief had replied, “Well, yes, I know that about you.”
Rosenzweig never did get the SIU assignment, which he later determined was a good thing. Around the same time as the Knapp Commission hearings, Robert Leuci, a cop with SIU, came forward à la Serpico and Phillips to detail corruption in the narcotics division, with illegal profits that dwarfed what those previous whistleblowers had been reporting. Leuci’s exploits were dramatized in the movie Prince of the City, based on Robert Daley’s book of the same name
“I guess I was smart enough to know what I didn’t know,” says Rosenzweig. Like many cops, he believed that taking money from dope was forbidden—corrupt cops primarily made their money off gambling. Even Phillips, who made scores from a staggering array of sources, including pimps, bookies, gangsters, and regular citizens, stayed away from narcotics.
“I didn’t feel guilty over it, but I didn’t feel particularly good about it either. I could have gotten this woman to confess to the Lindberg baby kidnapping.”
Did Rosenzweig know that proceeds from corruption worked their way from the streets all the way up the chain of command?
“That was the rumor,” he says. “Unless you were in on it, you would have no direct knowledge of it, but it was commonly believed that [payoffs] went all the way up to headquarters. What was not hidden at all was that if you worked the plainclothes division, in the 8th Division or 6th Division, you know, busy precincts, you make a thousand dollars a month, eleven hundred, twelve hundred, on the pad.”
When Phillips went before the cameras and laid it all out, unlike many, if not most, cops, Rosenzweig did not see a traitor but a hero. “I said to myself, thank God someone’s doing something about this,” he recalls.
When it was announced publicly, in the wake of the hearings, that Phillips was being indicted for a double murder, Rosenzweig got a bad feeling in the pit of his stomach. He had never met Phillips, but the indictment made him think of another shocking turn of events, when, on February 3, 1971, Frank Serpico got shot in the face during a drug arrest. At the time, Serpico’s role in exposing corruption was widely known; he was a despised figure in the NYPD. To Rosenzweig, the shooting was “surreal.” “I’m not sure I would’ve believed that the department was capable of framing Bill Phillips had I not had to come to terms with the possibility that they allowed Serpico to get shot,” he says.
In 1977, after Phillips had been convicted and sent to prison, Rosenzweig had an encounter with Detective John Justy, the cop who made it all happen. Justy had a reputation as one of the best interrogators in the department, and Rosenzweig enlisted his assistance with a case he was working on. They got to talking about the Phillips case.
“You were lead detective on that, right?”
“Yes,” answered Justy, and then, unsolicited, he added, “I’m sure we got the right guy.”
Rosenzweig found the comment odd: He hadn’t asked Justy whether he got the right guy. Justy’s knee-jerk defensiveness stuck with Rosenzweig over the years.
A decade later, while working as an investigator with the Manhattan D.A.’s office, Rosenzweig and another detective were sent to Pittsburgh to interview a woman named Donna Charmello, who had been a witness at Phillips’s second trial. Donna was a prostitute who had worked for Jimmy Smith at the time of the murders. On the stand, she claimed to have seen Phillips at the midtown bordello the night before the murders, and to have heard him say about Smith, “I’ll blow his head off.” During Phillips’s appeal, Charmello recanted her testimony. As representatives of the Manhattan D.A., Rosenzweig and his partner were sent to see Donna and get her to recant her recantation.
“I never felt good about what we did,” says Rosenzweig. “She just seemed very malleable. I did my job. I didn’t feel guilty over it, but I didn’t feel particularly good about it, either. I could have gotten this woman to confess to the Lindberg baby kidnapping.… I think that’s when I started to have nagging doubts about [the Phillips conviction].”
Later, in 1999, when Phillips went before the parole board for the first time and refused to admit to the murders, Rosenzweig took notice. “With his record of accomplishment in prison, he could have gotten out. All he had to do was admit to the killings, but he still said no. It just didn’t make sense.”
Rosenzweig worked for the D.A.’s office for 17 years, but it wasn’t until he retired that he filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to access the Phillips case file. It took years.
“Phillips had been released by now. I wasn’t even sure why I was doing it, other than the guy went to prison for 33 years for something he didn’t do—that somebody else did. I was naïve enough to believe that there’s still a chance to catch someone for the crime, to have some kind of honest justice.”
Eventually, Rosenzweig received approval to see part of the file. In a conference room inside the office of the Manhattan D.A.—his former employer—he spent six hours foraging through dusty boxes and perusing documents, some of which were so faded they could hardly be read. That’s when he came across the DD5. The NYPD memo quoted from an anonymous letter that had been received at the Department’s central tip box (before any Crimestoppers Hotline existed). The letter read:
If you’re looking for who hit Jimmy Smith on December 24th 137 East 57th Street the two guys involved in ordering the hit were “Little Charlie” Shonberg who works in the post office on East 53rd Street or 54th Street between 8th and 9th Ave. in Manhattan. He’s got over $50,000 on the street and Jimmy was into him pretty good heavy and was coming up empty on due days. The other guy is “Frankie the Jew” Waxelbaum and he lives someplace in Brooklyn and his telephone number is OK6-2511.
Very few people know that Frankie’s a supplier to other loan sharks because he’s real cute and also takes odd jobs as a front. He used to put money out himself when he worked for the World Telegram (on 59th Street and Madison Ave. in Manhattan) though he never really did any manual labor because he had kids to do that. His real action is putting up for other loan sharks and he himself works for the man.
Poor Jimmy was a pimp but he sure didn’t deserve to get hit for a lousy G.
The DD5 was signed by Det. John J. Justy. It was dated February 26, 1969, just two months after the murders and years before Bill Phillips became a suspect.
Says Rosenzweig, “I was stunned. There was nothing in the file to suggest that Justy had followed up in any way. I thought, this may be the whole story right here. This may be the smoking gun.”
Under the rules of legal procedure, the document was what is known as “Brady material”—it would have been required by law that police and prosecutors turn the document over to the defense.
The first person Rosenzweig contacted was renowned criminal defense lawyer F. Lee Bailey, who represented Phillips at his first trial. Bailey confirmed to Rosenzweig that he had never seen the document, nor even knew it existed. (Bailey died in 2021.) The next person the retired detective called was Ron Kuby, who had inherited what remained of the Phillips case from his longtime mentor, Bill Kunstler, who died in 1995. Kuby had never given up on the Phillips case, but after two failed appeals and the passage of half a century, he didn’t think there was any way left to rattle the cages—until he saw the memo.
Manhattan D.A. Alvin Bragg’s Post-Conviction Justice Unit had been announced with great fanfare. Bragg ran for D.A. on a platform that emphasized how the previous district attorney, Cyrus Vance, had not done enough on the issue of bringing justice to the wrongfully convicted. (The PCJU does not comment on cases that are under review, or even those that are being considered for review.) Kuby, who submitted his request with the unit just 30 days after it was created, suspects there will be a heavy backlog. “They’ve already stated that they intend to prioritize cases where the person in question is currently incarcerated. That’s understandable. But I’m hoping that with the historical significance of Phillips’s case—and Billy’s advanced age—they will make an exception here.”
Says Phillips, all the way from Oregon, “They made me out to be a monster. All these years I’ve had to carry this thing around. Having my name cleared before I pass away is the most important thing in my life right now.”
At the time of his conviction, and during his long incarceration, Phillips has had few advocates in the public arena. Despite his unprecedented role in detailing a corrupt police system, citizens on the left viewed him as a dirty cop. Those on the right portrayed him as a liar out to save his own skin by besmirching the reputation of our “heroes in blue.” To the average cop in New York, he was—and still is—the greatest snitch of all time.
Some might ask: Why does it matter? Phillips did his time in prison; he’s been out for 14 years. Who cares if his name is cleared after all this time?
For one thing, if Phillips didn’t commit the murders, somebody else did. Their liberty and freedom for the last 54 years is, among other things, a rebuke to the idea of NYPD professionalism and competence. Supposedly, in this city, and this country, justice matters. If Bill Phillips was wrongfully convicted in such a public way, what does it say about the concept of justice in the largest city in America? And if he was framed on murder charges by elements within the NYPD for his role in telling the truth about institutional corruption, just how rotten was the NYPD then, and how rotten is it today?
Phillips’s fate matters because it provides the city of New York the opportunity to do the right thing and rectify one of the most outrageous miscarriages of justice in the past half-century. ❖
T.J. English is the author of nine nonfiction books, including The Westies, The Savage City, Havana Nocturne, and, most recently, Dangerous Rhythms: Jazz and the Underworld.
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