Phillips guilty

Published 1:11 am Thursday, October 30, 2008

A jury of eight men and four women deliberated less than 40 minutes before finding former Covington County Probate Judge Sherrie Phillips guilty of theft by deception and ethics charges Wednesday afternoon.

Specifically, the jury found her guilty of:

First-degree theft by deception, by knowingly obtaining unauthorized control of a check for $1.8 million or any proceeds of the check, which was the property of the estate of Cary Douglas Piper and/or the State of Alabama;

As a public official — the probate judge of Covington County — intentionally using her official position for unlawful personal gain for herself or a family member, of a check for $1.8 million or any proceeds of the check.

Phillips faces a maximum penalty of two to 20 years of imprisonment and fines of up to $30,000 for each count, all of which are class B felonies. Judge Charles Price has set sentencing for Wed., Nov. 12.

The verdict came at the end of a long day in court that began with the defense’s presentation Wednesday morning and included Phillips’ testimony. Closing arguments were heard after lunch, and the jury left the courtroom to deliberate at 3:48 p.m.

In closing arguments, attorneys for the state said that despite Phillips’ argument in her own defense that she had repaid $516,000 taken from an account established with funds from the estate of Cary Douglas Piper, “you can’t unsteal money.”

Phillips’ attorney, Riley Powell, told the jury in closing arguments that his client was guilty of making “bad choices” but that “she has already been punished.”

“She has lost her job, and her reputation will never be brought back,” Powell said.

Earlier in the day, Phillips testified that she resigned as probate judge because County Commission Chairman Greg White filed a complaint against her to the Judicial Inquiry Commission.

“I decided in was in the best interest of the people of Covington County to resign,” she said.

As the defense presented its case, 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 Piper estate 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.

Phillips 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 fewer 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.

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.

It was a point to which the prosecution returned in closing arguments.

“Phillips said she put back $516,000 and her intent was to invest the money to make more money,” Baxley aid. “Here’s her mistake: She didn’t put back all of the principal (of $516,917).”

Throughout the case, Phillips’ attorney laid 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, said, “Not permanently and I intended to put it back.”

In one of the few light moments of the trial, Powell asked Phillips 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 Cayman 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.” The prosecutor used the comment several times in the course of the three-day trial.

Phillips’ trial drew a crowd that at some points filled the courtroom. Over the course of the three days, the spectators included a retired probate judge from a neighboring county, a current circuit judge, a former bank president, numerous attorneys, elected officials, former and current employees of the probate office, and Phillips’ family members.