Defense attorney: State must prove Phillips’ intent

Published 7:14 pm Monday, October 27, 2008

Sherrie Phillips’ defense attorney told members of the jury the state will have to prove that his client intended to deprive someone of the more than $1.8 million she stands accused of stealing for the six felony ethics and theft charges against her to stand.

In his opening statement to the jury, Riley Powell made that argument in response to the state’s claims that Phillips, the former probate judge of Covington County, “used the money as if she had won the lottery.”

Attorney William Lisenby, who heads the attorney general’s public corruption and white collar crime division, told the jury in his opening statement that Phillips on Jan. 4, 2008, directed the administrator of Cary Douglas Piper’s estate to write five checks, including a check for $3,650 to the Covington County Probate Court and a $1.8 million check payable to Phillips.

He said that the evidence will show, that on the same day, Phillips opened a personal account with a check for $1.8 million. Lisenby said the evidence will show that between Jan. 22, 2008 and April 5, 2008, Phillips wrote 10 checks on the account “just like anybody who won the lottery.”

Those checks, which total $516,917.50, Lisenby said, will be admitted into evidence, and include checks to pay off loans; a $25,000 check to her husband; a $100,000 check to her brother; a $100,000 check to herself written on the day after she purchased a Cadillac Escalade for more than $60,000; and a check to Andalusia Ford for $23,000. In the memo line of that check, Lisenby said, Phillips wrote “Bud’s truck.” Buddy Phillips is Sherrie Phillips’ husband.

Lisenby said the evidence also will show that on April 30, 2008, two special agents from the attorney general’s office went to the probate office with a subpoena for records in the Piper estate.

He said Phillips was not present, but was contacted by phone by an employee, who was directed by Phillips to supply the case file.

“There was no record in the file of what happened to the $1.8 million,” Lisenby said. “On the morning of May 1, 2008, Judge Phillips went back to Ed Jones and was waiting outside the business when it opened at 8:30.”

He said on that day, Phillips transferred money out of the personal account into a public funds account, and deposited four checks, including:

A check from one of her brothers for $449,000;

A check from another of her brothers for $25,000;

A check for $12,000 from her husband;

A check from herself for $32,000. Lisenby said evidence will show that Phillips presented the $32,000 in cash. When she was told that the firm could not accept cash deposits, she wrote a personal check for that amount.

Powell encouraged the jurors to “keep an open mind.”

Powell said if, at the end of the trial, if a juror has “ a feeling in the pit of your stomach that it ain’t right, the benefit of that doubt goes to Sherrie Phillips.”

Powell stressed that there were “zero heirs” in the case and that when there are no heirs, the money escheats to the state.

He said that in Phillips 30 years in the probate office, 10 as a clerk and 20 as judge, there had only been one other case in which there were no heirs.

Powell said it was “very routine” for Phillips to deposit money with Ed Jones.

“The fact that she took money to Bill Greenwald was not abnormal; it happened all the time,” Powell said.

He added that Phillips will testify that there was no record of the $1.8 million in the file because “it was in the probate judge’s safe the entire time.”

“Every bit” of the money was paid back before she was ever charged, he said.

Phillips also is represented by David Harrison of Geneva.

Court resumes at 9 a.m. Tuesday, when the state will call its first witness.