Closing arguments set this afternoon

Published 12:34 pm Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Closing arguments in the felony ethics and theft case against former Probate Judge Sherrie Phillips are expected to begin at 1:30 this afternoon.

The prosecution rested when court resumed this morning. Phillips’ defense attorney, Riley Powell, called attorney Deb Smith, who has practiced probate law in Phillips’ court; Darwin Pippen, who has served as a conservator in a large estate in Phillips’ court; and Phillips’ brother and son before putting the former judge on the stand in her own defense.

Phillips testified the account she set up at Edward Jones with a $1.8 million check from the estate of Cary Douglas Piper of Castleberry should have been set up as a public funds account rather than a personal account in her name. She said she provided her home address and Social Security number to personnel at the investment firm “because they asked” for it.

She testified the checks totaling $516,917.50 that she wrote from the account were actually loans made to her family members and the amounts were repaid with interest when she deposited checks totaling $516,000 into the account on the morning of May 1, 2008, one day after investigators with the attorney general’s office appeared in her office with a subpoena for records in the case file.

Phillips was pushed by the state on cross-examination about her testimony that the funds were earning interest when used by her family when less funds were repaid than were taken out of the account.

“If you paid back $917 less than was taken out, if it’s not all put back, you did not pay it back with interest,” questioned assistant attorney general William Lisenby.

Phillips testified that “It was all put back,” and said the remaining money in the account earned interest.

She said the money “did not belong to anyone” while in the account at Edward Jones because it “was not ripened to the escheat process and there were no heirs.”

Six first cousins have since come forward and petitioned to have the estate reopened.

On the charges that she stole portions of a check for $3,650, Phillips testified that she had instructed the administrator of the estate to bring a check for $36.50 for court fees. She testified that when she realized the amount was wrong, neither the administrator nor the attorney for the estate were present. She said she cashed the check in the probate office, paid the fees and placed the difference in her safe. Phillips testified that the money was still in her safe the day she left office.

On cross examination, Lisenby presented a receipt for $56.50 in court costs and questioned Phillips about the difference in the amounts. Phillips said “it must have been a mistake” and said mistakes are made in the probate office “every day.”

When asked if she or her family members benefited from the $516,917.50 spent from the Edward Jones account, Phillips testified that they did not. Pushed by Lisenby that portions of the money were used to pay off her mortgage, Phillips said she didn’t consider that a benefit because she still owed the money to the Edward Jones account.

Throughout the case, the Phillips’ attorney has been laying the groundwork for a defense that the state must show that Phillips intended to deprive someone of the money she is accused of stealing.

He specifically asked his client on the stand if it was her intent to steal the money.

Phillips, who wore a white turtleneck, dark tailored jacket and black beads, and exhibited a calm, almost sweet demeanor on the stand, made a potential misstep when answering the question.

She said, ‘Not permanently and I intended to put it back.”

In one of the few light moments on the trial, Powell asked Philips if she had “behaved like she won the lottery” adding “like it said on the front page of the newspaper.”

Phillips replied that if she had won the lottery she would have probably “gone somewhere like the Caymen Islands.”

On Tuesday, a headline in The Star-News quoted a prosecuting attorney’s statement in opening arguments to the jury that Phillips “spent money like she had just won the lottery.”