Jessie Phillips’ capital murder case continues to work its way through the court system, hoping to overturn his  death sentence with an appeal. His latest part of that was a Rule 32 appeal, saying he had ineffective counsel in his original trial. 

A hearing was held Monday to give defense and prosecutors time to put their cases before Judge Tim Riley. Riley presided over Phillips’ murder trial in 2012.

Phillips was convicted of shooting his wife Erica Droze Phillips on Feb. 27, 2009, following a day of arguments over a vehicle purchase. The killing took place in the car wash on Highway 69 at Warrenton. 

Riley heard arguments from Quinn Carlson, of Memphis, Tenn., an attorney for Phillips.

He also heard from Richard Anderson with the Alabama Attorney General’s Office.

Anderson argued the appeals should be dismissed in their entirety, while Carlson said such action would be premature.

Phillips attended the hearing via Zoom from prison.

In the courtroom to hear the arguments were Erica Phillips’ family, including her mother, brothers Robert, Lance, Billy and Camilo, and sister, Ariana and her husband, Logan.

Monday’s hearing was held to hear the latest in a lengthy string of appeals. The most recent appeal was filed in 2019 based on three main points, including the lack of testimony regarding mitigating circumstances in Phillips’ defense; a failure to cross examine the state’s medical examiner; and ineffective counsel.

Carlson, of Memphis, Tenn., said she did not receive the latest appeal petition until March 2020, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. She said the case has been plagued with delays due to short staffing and closures due to the pandemic.

Carlson was just able to meet with Phillips late last week, she said.

Riley called the list of appeal requests “broad strokes.”

"It seems like such a broad number of claims have been made, as if you are taking a shotgun approach,” Judge Riley said. “It seems like you’ve filed every possible thing you can think of that might merit a reversal. You’ve raised a tremendous number of issues.”

Judge Riley heard nearly two hours of what he termed “a Lincoln-Douglas debate,” but did not make any decisions Monday. He said after the hearing he would take all the information presented and consider what, if any, action is appropriate in the case.

He did not give a timeline as to when that might happen.

Lance Droze said the continued string of appeals has worn down the family.

“If I had to describe what these appeals do to our family and sanity, I’d say it’s like picking at a scab that just won’t heal,” he said. “It’s a scar that you can’t cover. You’re trying to forget but they just don’t let you.”

History

On the day of the murder, the couple had been to New Hope to purchase a vehicle, ate lunch at the Hampton Cove McDonald’s with her brother, Billy Droze, before the group returned to Guntersville to meet with Erica’s brother, Lance, while he was working at the Guntersville Boat Mart.

During the trial, defense attorney Bruce Gardner said Jessie Phillips “snapped” after years of verbal abuse by Erica, where she is alleged to have used racial slurs and taunted Jessie over his religious beliefs.

On the day of the shooting, Gardner said Erica Phillips had argued with Jessie Phillips all day regarding the vehicle purchase, among other things, calling him “stupid” and using racial slurs.

Billy Droze testified he heard Jessie and Erica arguing before hearing her call for his help. He ran into a wash bay to see Jessie holding Erica in a headlock with a pistol pointed at her head. She was able to break free, Billy Droze testified, but he watched in horror as Jessie fired a single shot seconds later, striking her in the head.

Prosecutors said Jessie Phillips stepped over or around Erica as he got into the couple’s pickup truck and he fled the scene, leaving Erica lying in a pool of blood. He testified he never looked to see if she needed help and did not know if or where she had been struck.

Guntersville medics responded to the shooting scene and transported Erica Phillips to Marshall Medical Center North where she was treated for less than an hour before being transferred to Huntsville Hospital where she later died. Erica Phillips was approximately eight weeks pregnant at the time of the shooting.

In taped interviews with Guntersville and Albertville police, Jessie Phillips said he considered shooting himself just after shooting Erica, but to do so would go against his religious beliefs.

He said he also considered getting into a shootout with officers when he turned himself in, but to force another person to kill a person would put too much of a burden on the officer. In the end, he peacefully turned himself in to a Marshall County Drug Enforcement Agent outside the Albertville Police Department.

“I’m not a suspect, I did it,” he told arresting officers.

The Arguments

Much of the arguments given Monday centered around Gardner’s effectiveness as defense counselor and how the Brody Bill was applied in the case.

Anderson contends Carlson attacked Gardner simply because his line of defense didn’t work out and Phillips was convicted. He also contends Phillips held Muslim beliefs and insisted Gardner not put on any mitigation witnesses during the trial. He said Phillips believed in “an eye for an eye” and that Gardner simply followed his client’s wishes in that regard.

Carlson countered, saying Gardner at some point got Phillips’ consent to have his mother testify regarding his troubled childhood, where he suffered sexual abuse and was removed from his mother’s care due to her drug use.

She also claimed Jessie and Erica Phillips had a tumultuous relationship and frequently had arguments and heated exchanges, but Gardner didn’t seek out statements from neighbors or witnesses at McDonald’s and the car lot from the day of the shooting.

Carlson also questioned whether Erica Phillips was truly pregnant at the time, saying no effort was made to get her OB/GYN records to see if she had gotten her pregnancy confirmed through an ultrasound.

Charges & Appeals

Prosecutors charged Phillips with capital murder instead of murder under the Brody Bill.

The bill was signed into law in 2006, making it a crime to kill or harm an unborn baby. Roger and Pam Parker lobbied for the law, which is named for their daughter, Brandy’s unborn son. Brandy was eight months pregnant when she was murdered in 2005 in Albertville.

Killing two or more people in one act is considered capital murder in Alabama. It was the first time Brody’s Law was applied to a crime in Marshall County.

Phillips was found guilty of the murders and sentenced to death. He remains in Holman Prison on Death Row.

The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals upheld Phillips’ conviction in 2015 but remanded the case back to the trial court for resentencing.

In 2016, Judge Tim Riley again sentenced Phillips to death.

In 2018, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed Phillips’ conviction but remanded the case for the trial court to address 13 defects in its sentencing order, including if there was an issue with the chain of custody regarding a urine sample taken during Erica Phillip’s autopsy; the admission into evidence of an autopsy photograph; and the application of Brody Act to the case.

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