Death Sentence Overturned 31 Years Later

Richard Phillips has spent half his life on California’s death row.  Last week a federal appeals court overturned his death sentence, while upholding his murder conviction.  The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, voted 2-1, that a key witness lied about promises of leniency and the prosecutor in 1980 improperly hid the deal from the defense.

Phillips, now 62, was convicted of murdering Bruce Bartulis and attempting to murder Ronald Rose, a pair of contractors building a house near Phillips’ own Newport Beach home.

Phillips was sentenced to die for murder in the course of a robbery.  Phillips was accused of luring the men into a cocaine smuggling plan and to provide stolen insulation.  In 1977 he got the men to meet him in Chowchilla where they were both shot while sitting in their car.  Phillips then took less than $300 from their wallets.

But it was the robbery in the course of a murder that made him eligible for deathrow.

Phillips’ girlfriend, Sharon Colman, provided key testimony against him and his defense lawyer argued that she must have been promised leniency in exchange.

But Colman denied the claim and the prosecutor, District Attorney David Minier, told jurors it was “sheer fabrication.”

Judge Stephen Reinhardt noted that, in fact, Colman was promised significant benefits, then testified falsely that she had not.  The prosecutor had promised to forego capital murder charges against her and all other charges related to the allegations against Phillips.

Phillips’ defense was that he was engaged in a shootout with the two men.

“Were Colman’s testimony discredited as a result of the revelation of her false testimony and her motivation for lying, the jury could and likely would have concluded that the theft of the wallets, or any minimal unsuccessful attempt to steal any other cash on Rose’s person, was simply a ‘second thing to’ the murder, and thus not a special circumstance under California law,” wrote Reinhardt.

Jurors might well have concluded that his real purpose was to cover up his prior narcotics dealings with Rose and Bartulis, according to the majority.

In dissent, Judge Andrew Kleinfeld, pointed out Phillips shot Bartulis and did his best to kill Rose, by shooting him five times.  He then poured gasoline on him, set him on fire and later ran him over with a car.  Phillips was told both men they should give him $25,000 to buy cocaine they could re-sell and bring stolen insulation to the meeting.

Rose survived and provided critical testimony at the trial as well, he said.  Kleinfeld found that sufficient to uphold the death sentence.

As a result of the majority ruling, the county must seek a new penalty-phase trial on the death penalty, or Phillips must be resentenced to a term other than death.

Case:  Phillips v. Ornoski,  No. 04-99005



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