A full 3 years will do, thanks

Published 12:00 am Saturday, April 9, 2011

Truth be known, I had been waiting for the call all day.

Because as soon as I knew there would be a story in Friday’s paper about Sherrie Phillips’ attempt to get out of jail approximately 18 months early, I made a mental list.

Ms. Phillips was sentenced to 10 years in prison and ordered to serve three of those after being convicted in 2008 of theft by deception of $1.8 million and intentionally using her official position for unlawful personal gain for herself or a family member. In her defense, Phillips testified that in loaning a portion of the money in question to members of her family she was making an investment for the state. No loan documents were ever presented as evidence of this claim, and no one managed to explain how that Cadillac SUV for which she used some of the money would make money for the state.

After exhausting her appeal options, she reported to jail in 2009.

The charges against the former probate judge related to the estate of a Castleberry man whose estate should have been settled in Conecuh County. Instead, a friend of the late Cary Douglas Piper and her attorney brought Piper’s estate here to be probated. After Phillips’ conviction, the attorney pleaded guilty to third degree perjury, a misdemeanor.

Like Phillips, the attorney and the friend repaid large sums of money to the estate after the criminal investigation began and a number of Piper cousins and legal heirs were identified in a separate civil case.

From the day she was indicted in June of 2008 until the week after she was sentenced, numerous people who felt they or their loved ones also had been wronged in some way called our office. All of them wanted justice. Whether or not their wrongs rose to the level of a criminal complaint is not for me to say, but the best any of them got was a sympathetic ear.

So I was waiting Friday for one of them to call. She did.

I have heard her story before and it is sad. She has not given up hope of finding an attorney who’ll help her get answers to questions about her mother’s estate. But mostly, she was seeking reassurance that a full sentence would be served.

I couldn’t give her that. With the state legislature considering bills that would put 3,000 nonviolent offenders on the street within 90 days, no one knows what will happen next. A few short words in the bills (SB 142 and HB 215) exclude anyone who is serving a split sentence from eligibility for early release.

But that didn’t stop Ms. Phillips’ attorney, David Harrison of Geneva, from filing a motion seeking just that and citing prison crowding as one of the reasons she should be set free.

Judge Charles Price, who still has jurisdiction over Ms. Phillips’ sentence, has a stellar reputation as a no-nonsense judge who presides over the circuit court of Montgomery County. He very fairly tried Ms. Phillips’ case. On the day he sentenced her, he stated that public officials should be held to a higher standard. I believe that higher standard means no “get out of jail early” pass.

Those who have told their stories to investigators and sympathetic editors, but never to a jury, have only one hope for continued belief that there is justice in the justice system.

And that’s Judge Price’s enforcement of a full 1,095 days.

The attorney general’s office, now led by Luther Strange, tried this case. His office can be reached at 334.242.7200.