Michigan Man Turned to Art as Escape During Decades-Long Sentence for Murder He Didn’t Commit

Michigan Man Turned to Art as Escape During Decades-Long Sentence for Murder He Didn’t Commit

April 28, 2020 Off By arencejean

When Richard Phillips had nothing else, he had art.

The 73-year-old Detroit, Michigan, man spent decades in prison for a 1971 murder that he did not commit, after being framed by the actual killer — a man who would end up serving as the state’s star witness during Phillips’ trial.

As Phillips sat in his cell, he turned to art as an escape — a way to keep his sanity in a violent place. Between 1971, when he first entered prison, and 2018, when he was freed, Phillips created more than 400 watercolor paintings, all based on photographs he would find in newspapers.

Phillips’ story — the circumstances that led to his conviction and exoneration.

Today, Phillips is selling his paintings for thousands of dollars.

Phillips never let the horror of his circumstances break his spirits. He was certain the truth would come to light, and refused to lose hope that redemption was coming.

In 2010, Phillips’ alleged co-defendant, Richard Polombo, told a parole board Phillips had nothing to do with the 1971 murder of Gregory Harris. Polombo further claimed Harris’ real killer framed Phillips for the killing, even helping prosecutors build their case against him.

Phillips, a former auto worker, was freed in 2018 after several University of Michigan law students, working in conjunction with the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office, proved his innocence.

But what would happen to the real killer? Would police pursue him, finally bringing him to justice after 45-plus years?

By the time he was released, Phillips would earn the unique distinction of serving more prison time than any other exonerated inmate in American history. The state of Michigan ended up paying for the mistake, handing Phillips $1.5 million in compensation last year.