Phillips gets 3 years in jail

Published 12:17 am Thursday, November 13, 2008

Montgomery County Circuit Judge Charles Price sentenced Covington County’s former probate judge to a 10-year split sentence with three years’ imprisonment Wednesday morning, despite arguments by her attorneys and friends that she wouldn’t benefit from incarceration.

Sherrie Phillips left the Covington County Courthouse in the custody of the sheriff’s department shortly before 10 a.m., but was free on an appeal bond by afternoon. There was standing room only in the courtroom during the sentencing.

Phillips was found guilty in October 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; and 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.

Judge Price sentenced Phillips to 10 years on each of the counts, with a three-year split sentence, to be served concurrently. Following her incarceration, she will have three years of supervised probation, and will remain on probation for an additional four years.

Price also ordered Phillips to pay $5,000 in victims’ compensation, court costs, and to repay the $917 difference in the amounts taken from the $1.8 million Piper account and the amount repaid when investigators started asking questions about the estate.

During her October trial, the jury presented evidence that Phillips on Jan. 4, 2008, took a $1.8 million check from the estate of Cary Douglas Piper and put the funds into a personal account for herself, listing her own address and Social Security number on the account. Phillips subsequently wrote checks totaling $516,917.50, including 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 the day after she purchased a Cadillac Escalade, and a $23,000 check to a Ford dealer for her husband’s truck.

On May 1, 2008, one day after investigators from the attorney general’s staff appeared in the probate office requesting information about the Piper estate, Phillips transferred funds from that personal account to a public funds account using the tax identification number of the probate office. She deposited $516,000 that day, including checks for $49,000 and $23,000 from her brothers; $12,000 from her husband; and a $32,000 check from her personal account.

In the sentencing hearing, Phillips’ defense attorneys, David Harrison and Riley Powell, called four character witnesses to testify on Phillips’ behalf (See related story) and argued that the former longtime probate judge had been punished enough.

Assistant Attorney General William Lisenby asked Judge Price to consider four points in his sentence. The theft is among the largest ever in the state, he said, added that the Alabama Supreme Court has ruled previously that “stealing a million dollars is more serious than stealing a hundred.”

Lisenby also asked Judge Price to consider that Phillips was an attorney who was familiar with the law, and that she had shown no remorse.

“We heard testimony that she spent the money as if she had won the lottery,” he said. “We believe an extreme sentence should be imposed.

Harrison argued that only $917 of the $1.8 million Phillips was convicted of stealing was actually missing.

“The bottom line is, this young lady is accused of stealing $1.8 million,” Harrison said. “When she was arrested, only $917 was missing from the account.”

But Judge Price said, “It was not a $917 theft. It was a $1 million, $800 thousand theft.”

Harrison continued, “This young lady is here because of who she is. If some Joe Blow owed $917 in restitution, he wouldn’t be here.

“There were three people involved in this case,” Harrison said. “Judge Phillips is sitting to my right. Where are the other two?”

Harrison was referring to the administrator of the estate and the administrator’s attorney, each of whom received $450,000 in fees from the $3 million estate. Each has since repaid those fees with interest after being ordered to do so in a separate case in probate court.

Harrison also argued that Phillips has already accepted responsibility for her actions by resigning as judge.

“She won’t get her retirement,” Harrison said. “This case started with six felonies, and one of these will not stand.”

Again, Price interrupted Harrison.

“What are you saying?” Judge Price said. “You know something about the appellate court I don’t know?”

Harrison said he doesn’t believe the facts of the case meet the legal definition of theft by deception.

Before issuing his sentence, Judge Price, who said he taught Phillips when she was a student at Jones Law School, said, “The problem that happened in this case was greed. Greed can overtake the strongest of individuals.”

He said he wasn’t interested in sentencing Phillips to the penitentiary “thinking I’m doing something great for the reduction of crime.”

However, he said, he firmly believes that public officials “should be held to a higher standard.”

Her attorneys have approximately 30 days to file that appeal, which could take 18 months to two years, Powell said.

Powell said because Judge Price issued a split sentence, he retains jurisdiction over the case and can enter an order to release Phillips before her three years are up if her appeal is not successful.

See the paper edition of the Star-News for related stories.