LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – For the first time in the dozen years since he was charged with the shooting of gas station clerk Brenda Whitfield, Percy Phillips was not in custody as he walked into the courtroom for a hearing in the murder case Monday.
And, despite a request from prosecutors to put him back in jail with a bond, Phillips left the courtroom a free man until his trial, now set for April 2022.
The case, by far the oldest pending criminal action in Jefferson County, began in 2009 when Metro Police admitted the wrong man had been convicted for killing Whitfield.
New technology to analyze fingerprints showed that Edwin Chandler, who had spent nine years in prison was innocent, and Phillips was indicted.
Since then, the case has remained pending, though until July Phillips remained in prison on an unrelated conviction.
On July 22, Phillips was released from prison after serving out a 20-year sentence in an assault conviction. With no bail holding him on the murder charge for the 1993 shooting, Phillips walked free.
On Monday, Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Mark Baker asked Jefferson Circuit Court Judge Eric Haner to put a bond on Phillips and argued he was a danger to the family of the victims and others involved in the case.
Julia Mudd, Phillips’ attorney, pointed out there had already been a bond request hearing in May, in front of now-retired Judge Barry Willett, where prosecutors noted that Phillips was scheduled to be released within the next year.
At the time, Willett declined to raise Phillips’ bond, and Mudd argued there had been no change of circumstances that would warrant altering it now.
All this appeared to be a nonissue in 2009, when Phillips was first charged with the murder, because he was already in prison for the 2001 assault conviction. With a 20-year sentence, he wasn’t going to be released anytime soon, and murder cases generally take a few years to prosecute.
“We thought 10 years would be sufficient time to get the case tried,” Baker told the judge Monday, arguing the change of circumstances was that Phillips had now been released.
But Judge Haner agreed with Mudd, and Phillips will remain free until his trial as long as he stays out of trouble.
However, Haner denied Mudd's request to dismiss the murder case for a violation of his speedy trial rights.
While Phillips requested a speedy trial, which under the law means within six months, barring certain circumstances, in 2009 and 2013, he caused many of the delays, the judge pointed out.
The case has been set for trial at least a half dozen times before being postponed for various reasons.
Haner set the new date for mid-April 2022.
In March, former Louisville police detective Mark Handy pleaded guilty to committing perjury during Chandler’s 1995 trial. Handy lied about something he said Chandler told him about the case, something only the murderer would have known.
Chandler was found guilty in a 1995 trial, in part because he confessed, though he said it was because he was coerced by Handy’s threat to take away his sister’s children.
Upon his release, Chandler approached the Kentucky Innocence Project, which took on the case even though Chandler was no longer incarcerated.
In 2008, with prompting from the Innocence Project, police re-examined the murder, including using updated fingerprint technology.
In 1993, the suspect brought a beer to the convenience store counter and when Whitfield opened the register, he shot her in the head. A total of $32 was taken.
The beer was left behind. Running a fingerprint scan on the bottle, former Louisville Metro Police Detective Denny Butler discovered three prints: Two were from gas station employees, and the other was from Phillips, according to court records.
During the subsequent investigation, a photo lineup that included Phillips was presented to the former inmate who was in the parking lot at the time of the murder. He identified Phillips as the person who walked out of the store after the shooting, according to court records.
After his exoneration, Louisville Metro government eventually paid Chandler $8.5 million to settle a lawsuit.
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