From Sorrow to Salvation
How Gabi Silver helped free Richard Phillips from a life sentence
Published in 2021 Michigan Super Lawyers magazine on August 13, 2021
When Richard Dan Phillips’ case came to Gabi Silver in 2017, Phillips had already served 45 years for a crime he didn’t commit. Convicted in 1972 for the murder of Gregory Harris, Phillips and Richard Palombo were sentenced to life in prison.
“Both ended up getting convicted on, truly, just the worst crap case I’ve ever seen,” says Silver. “A lot of the cases I’ve seen now back from the ’70s, ’80s even, were really terrible—very little evidence, very suspicious evidence, a lot of police hanky-panky.”
The whole time Phillips was in prison, he thought that Palombo had been framed the same as he had been. But in 2010, Palombo had a hearing before the parole board at which he admitted under oath that he had actually been involved in the Harris murder, not with Phillips but with a man named Fred Mitchell. The truth, Siler says, was that Palombo and Phillips didn’t even know each other at the time of the murder.
“Nobody after that hearing bothered to let Richard Phillips know what had happened, that there had been this testimony,” she says. “The lawyers just kind of sat on it. It’s flat-out disgraceful. All of these human beings sat in there and heard this man under oath exonerate a man who was serving life in prison.”
Years passed before the Innocence Clinic at University of Michigan law school was tipped off to the testimony, says Silver. “The Innocence Clinic hopped on it and filed a petition to get Mr. Phillips a new trial.”
Silver happened to be in the courtroom for a different case when the Innocence Clinic won Phillips a new trial in March 2017.
“The director of the clinic, Dave Moran, said, ‘I was going to call you anyway, but it’s fortuitous you’re here. Do you think you’d be interested in representing Mr. Phillips going forward?’” Silver recalls. “So I went into the back where the lockup is and had a conversation with Richard. He had heard of me before. I agreed to represent him, and he agreed to have me represent him. And thus started our journey.”
The first task was to get Phillips out of jail, which she did, on personal bond, in December 2017. “Right before Christmas. That was just incredible,” she says.
Silver picked him up at Wayne County jail herself. “He came out to a world that really had changed significantly,” she says. “Even things like seatbelts in cars, cellphones, just everything. He went to the grocery store and was just flabbergasted by the number of choices of orange juice that there were. … I think adjusting was pretty hard for him.
“He had no family, no supportive family members on the outside at all. His mother had died; he had a wife that divorced him soon into his sentence; he had two children, a son and a daughter, who he had not seen since the day he went to prison,” says Silver. “He really was on his own.”
While Silver didn’t know what the prosecutor’s office was going to do, she knew what she was going to do.
“It’s pretty common in situations like this that the prosecutor’s office will say, ‘Hey, why don’t you just plead guilty to murder in the second degree and we’ll give you credit for time served and you can be done,’” she adds. “That was the offer they made to him and he said no. He just said, ‘There’s just no way. I’m telling you right now that never, ever is going to happen. I’ll die in prison before I’ll admit that I did something I didn’t do.’
“You’ve got to have a lot of respect for a guy like that. He’s an amazing man.”
Closure was the most important thing, Silver says, and she sought to get it for him immediately. It finally came in March 2018. “The prosecutor’s office notified us that they were going to dismiss the case and exonerate him,” she says. “His nightmare would be over.”
Phillips is now a free man. He lives a quiet life, has many friends, and loves to paint.
“He started painting as a way to escape from the ugliness of prison life. He painted hundreds of beautiful watercolors,” Silver says. “Every single one of them starts with the letter ‘S.’ The very first painting he did was called Sorrow. He gave that one to me.”
Silver describes Phillips as a warm, charming man. “He’s the kind of person that people are drawn to,” said Silver. “You look at Richard and you can’t help but be struck by the years he lost and the loss of probably very valuable contributions he could have made through those years.
“To this day, we’re very close friends. We talk all the time, we text all the time, we celebrate birthdays together,” Silver says. “This man’s got a personality plus, let me tell you. It’s turned into a really great friendship and one of the joys of my life and joys of my career.”