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Richard Phillips survived the longest wrongful prison sentence in American history by writing poetry and painting with watercolors. But on a cold day in the prison yard, he carried a knife and thought about revenge.

Richard Phillips is a tall man with broad shoulders and a habit of singing to himself, usually without words, a deep and joyful sound that seems to rise from his soul. He began singing when he was a boy, and kept singing in prison, and now sings in the car, and at the dinner table, sustaining that one long note, as if nothing in the world could stop the music. Two days after he was sentenced to life in prison in , Phillips wrote a poem. It may have been the first poem he ever wrote.

He was 26 years old, and had left high school in tenth grade, and now, with plenty of time to wonder, he took a pencil and set his wondering down on the . He wondered about the color of raindrops, the color of the sky, the color of his heart, the color of his words when he sang aloud, and the color of his need for someone to hold. One appeal failed in , another in About four years later he had enough to pay one of the best appellate lawyers in Michigan, so he sent in the money and waited for freedom.

All the while he thought of his children, and remembered the taste of homemade ice cream, and wrote love poems to women, both real and imaginary, featuring beds made of violets and warm baths made of tears. He waited, and waited. On January 1, , a date confirmed by his journal, Phillips was in his room when another inmate walked in with some news. It was a cold gray Monday at the Jackson prison, and Phillips had not seen his children in 2, days. Fred Mitchell? Phillips knew what to do. The prison was home to several factories. This meant easy access to raw materials, including scrap metal, which also meant an abundance of homemade knives.

Phillips and his friend each held one under a sleeve as they stood outside the chow hall, waiting for Mitchell to emerge. Here he was, walking across the yard, unaware of the two men walking behind him. Phillips could see it all in his mind. And he just might get away with it. It was a Friday night in Detroit around The stepfather had a thick leather belt. Phillips said no. The stepfather beat him with the belt for a long time. Then he asked again: Did you steal my watch? The beating continued.

Did you steal my watch? His mother watched, too afraid to intervene. The stepfather asked once more for a confession. Phillips stood firm. The belt struck again, and again, and again, and finally it shattered some internal barrier. Yes, the boy said, just to make it stop, and the young man who emerged from that beating told himself that was the last false confession he would ever make. Some lies require more lies.

The stepfather told him to go to school Monday and get it back. Phillips went up to sleep in the roach-infested attic, as he did every night, and wondered how to conjure a watch out of thin air. The next morning he ran away. He gathered a can of pork and beans and a can opener and a few slices of bread and an empty syrup bottle full of Kool-Aid and he crammed them into his lunchbox and walked outside into his new life.

That night he slept on the hard floor of a vacant house, aware that he had no one in the world but himself. The police caught him the next day. His stepfather beat him again. And alone in the attic or on the streets of Detroit, Phillips taught himself how to survive. How to escape into his own mind by drawing pictures: an airplane, or Superman, or even the Mona Lisa, with a pencil on a piece of cardboard.

Little is known about the life of Fred Mitchell beyond a few memories of old acquaintances and the occasional mention in official records. Fred Mitchell could chase down a deep fly and catch it over his shoulder, just like the Say Hey Kid. When they were not playing baseball, Phillips and Mitchell and their friends skipped school and played with BB guns and drank beer in alleys and fought in backyards and played hide-and-seek with the cops.

They were juvenile delinquents on the verge of becoming hardened criminals in a city where violent crime was all around. A single issue of the Detroit Daily Dispatch newspaper gives a sense of the chaos and desperation. It was December 13, At the bottom of 2 was a brief item about a year-old man pleading guilty to manslaughter. This was Fred Mitchell, who quarreled with another young man and then shot him to death. By this time, Phillips had taken a better path. After a joyriding conviction led to a brief prison sentence, he took a typing class and learned to type 72 words per minute.

He put on a suit in the morning and rode the bus to work, spending less time with the old crew. Phillips had a strong jaw and an easy manner. He charmed the young ladies. One day a girlfriend named Theresa told him she was pregnant, and the baby was his. Phillips stayed with Theresa, and their daughter was born, and they got married and had a son. Theresa worked in a bank. They rented a modest apartment on Gltone, and Phillips bought a Buick Electra He gave his children the things he never had: abundant love, fancy new clothes, armlo of presents under the Christmas tree.

In , the year Phillips turned 25, things began to unravel. He played around with some pranksters at work, and one prank went too far. Phillips denied it, but he lost his job anyway. Around this time, Fred Mitchell got out of prison. Jobless and shiftless, with his marriage floundering, Phillips returned to his old friend.

They called him Dago. The three men went to shows at night and snorted heroin in motel rooms. Phillips lived a double life, dangerous and unsustainable, a drug addict by night and a father by day. One day in September, he took the children to the Michigan State Fair. His daughter, Rita, was 4.

His son, Richard Jr. They rode the Ferris wheel, crashed around in the bumper cars, and posed together for an instant photograph that was printed on a round metal button. That night Phillips went out and never came home. Forty-six years later, legal observers would say Richard Phillips had served the longest known wrongful prison sentence in American history. The National Registry of Exonerations lists more than 2, people who were convicted of crimes and later found innocent, and Phillips served more time than anyone else on that list.

Undoubtedly, the justice system failed him. The police failed. The prosecution failed. His defense attorney failed. The jury failed. The trial judge failed. The appellate judges failed. But on that cold day in the prison yard, as he walked toward the Blind Spot with the homemade knife under his sleeve, Richard Phillips was not thinking about a nameless, faceless system. He was thinking about the man who put him there: his old friend Fred Mitchell. The black man stood watch near the door. The white man pulled a gun and demanded money.

An alert citizen noticed the car driving erratically and called the police. Palombo knew he was caught; he would plead guilty to armed robbery. But who was his accomplice? Phillips and Mitchell were both detained shortly after Palombo was. The two men looked similar. In a lineup at the station, two witnesses looked them over.

They agreed that the second robber was Richard Phillips. The prosecutor asked who else was there. His silence about the crimes of would stretch out for 39 years, with disastrous consequences. Even though one prosecution witness wavered between identifying the second robber as Fred Mitchell or Richard Phillips, the jury found Phillips guilty of armed robbery. He was sentenced to at least seven years in prison. And he was still in prison the next winter, when the body of Gregory Harris turned up. Harris was a year-old man who disappeared in June after going out to buy cigarettes. His wife found his green convertible the following night.

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