2017-07-18 14:10:50 UTC
This killer turned prison chaplain shows what's wrong with the death penalty.
Ronald Phillips is scheduled to die on Wednesday, July 26. It is the 7th time
this death row inmate in Ohio has been slated for execution since he was
sentenced in 1993 for brutally killing a child. Mr. Phillips's crime was
horrendous: He raped and beat to death his girlfriend???s 3-year-old daughter,
Sheila Marie Evans. That was 24 years ago when Mr. Phillips was 19 years old.
Today, Ron Phillips is an unofficial chaplain at Ohio's Chillicothe
Correctional Institution. He attends multiple church services each week and has
spent time with other inmates discussing Bible readings and life's challenges.
Chris Gebhart, a retired businessman and practicing Catholic, has worked with
multiple death row inmates at the prison since 2012. Ron Phillips at 43 years
old is a very different man from the disturbed young adult who killed Sheila
Marie in 1993, says Mr. Gebhart. He has visited Mr. Phillips regularly, sitting
shoulder to shoulder with the inmate for 2 hours every month, sharing stories
and studying the Bible. Mr. Phillips is now a nondenominational Christian who
deeply regrets what he did. "He is close to God," says Mr. Gebhart. "He feels
it, and he is concerned about others. I would trust him with my life. I can't
say that about too many people."
National media are now watching the stories of Ron Phillips and 2 other Ohio
inmates for their implications for death row prisoners across the country. All
3 are supposed to die by lethal injection using a cocktail of drugs that may
not properly anesthetize prisoners. (Their attorneys are hoping to postpone
execution once again by taking their cases to the Supreme Court.) But Mr.
Phillips's story also raises a greater question: Can a person change so
dramatically over the course of 2-plus decades that he no longer deserves to
Mr. Phillips, says Chris Gebhart, is not asking to be set free. He is not
asking for forgiveness, either. But Ron Phillips isasking for his life to be
spared and to have his sentence commuted to life in prison without parole so he
can spend his remaining days on death row as a fellow inmate and prison
minister to his peers. It is something Mr. Phillips is uniquely positioned to
do, says Mr. Gebhart. "There are guys in high-security prisons that wouldn't
trust outsiders, but they would sit down with him because he's one of them,"
says Mr. Gebhart. "He can do so much good. He can reach people that other
people can't reach."
The pain and loss that anyone who loved 3-year-old Sheila Marie feels are
unimaginable, especially knowing the disturbing details of her final days. In
the minutes from Mr. Phillips's December 2016 parole board meeting, Sheila
Marie's half-sister, Renee Mundell, noted that "Phillips took away her
opportunity to watch Sheila grow up." The minutes describing the meeting also
said: "It is difficult for [Mundell] to face the reality of the pain and fear
her sister endured. It makes her sick to think about it." Both Ms. Mundell and
Sheila Marie's aunt, Donna Hudson, asked the court to serve "justice" by
executing Mr. Phillips. In support of their plea, on a Facebook page maintained
in memory of Sheila Marie, visitors continually and passionately advocate for
executing Ron Phillips.
For many, the details of Mr. Phillips's appalling crime warrant the death
penalty. But a closer look at the ways he has changed over 24 years makes it
difficult to argue that the man he has become deserves to die. According to
those same 2016 parole board minutes, "Phillips insisted what he did to Sheila
was wrong, and he is the only person responsible for his actions." He said that
he is "not the same arrogant, immature and selfish person who committed those
crimes." He requested his sentence to be commuted to life in prison without
parole. His plea was denied by the parole board 8 days later,10 votes to 2.
Killing Ron Phillips will achieve a measure of vengeance, but it will not undo
any of the terrible things he did to Sheila Marie. By now, Mr. Phillips's
execution might not even serve justice; killing him releases him from the
burden of thinking every single day about the horrendous crimes he committed.
Catholic teaching opposes the death penalty in all but the rarest of
circumstances. Pope Francis has gone even further saying, "Nowadays the death
penalty is inadmissible, no matter how serious the crime committed." This case,
in particular, highlights why capital punishment should be rejected: Had Ron
Phillips been executed 20 years ago, he would not have had the chance to seek
and find God, to continually repent for the crimes he committed and to become a
leader, an instrument of faith and a voice of peace and love amongst his peers.
How many more people like Ron Phillips - searching for salvation, open to
change - fill our country's prisons? How many inmates could Mr. Phillips serve
and bring closer to God if only he could live among them?
Now, as he counts the days until his July 26 execution, Ron Phillips is "taking
1 day at a time" and praying a lot, says Chris Gebhart. He is hoping others
will see the value in working to reform prisoners instead of killing them.
"He believes God is using him to show the world that people change,???"says Mr.
Gebhart, "and that capital punishment in and by itself is wrong."
Ronald Phillips: Breakdown of Criminal Justice
A ruling by a federal court makes it more likely that executions will resume in
Ohio on July 26, despite warnings that the state's drug protocol could cause
immense pain. The 1st person due to face this pain is Ronald Phillips.[i]
Phillips is used to suffering pain: his childhood consisted of intense,
frequent "abuse, chaos, and dysfunction ... in which criminal activity, sexual
deviancy, and physical abuse were not only acceptable but were the norm". His
father first raped him when he was 4. His parents taught him and his siblings
to lie to officials to conceal the criminality, thus blocking escape routes for
the children. As a result, Phillips grew up a confused, ashamed, angry, and
Phillips finally fled home at the age of 17, having acquired from his
upbringing a personality disorder with borderline and paranoid features that
left him unable to trust others. Often such individuals gravitate to others
with similar disorders; thus it was that Phillips took up with a woman whose
problems with sexual boundaries compounded his own ignorance of what
Phillips insists that when he was abusing his girlfriend's daughter, Sheila, it
never occurred to him that what he was doing was wrong. One psychologist who
assessed Phillips explains:
"To someone like Phillips, abusing Sheila was not something that would be
clearly wrong in his mind."
Sheila died as a result of the abuse at the age of 3 1/2, in 1993.
At the time of his trial, still terrified of his father, Phillips was unwilling
to report his own catastrophic childhood abuse, but disclosed it much later;
his reluctance to confront the impact of his disastrous past is typical of such
cases. His trial counsel failed to ask his step-sister, Mary Phillips, to
testify about the abuse in his childhood home. His lawyers and investigator
also failed to produce Children's Services Board records that could have
alerted jurors to mitigating factors in Phillips's case; this resulted in "a
complete breakdown of the criminal justice system".
On death row a prison Christian group has provided Phillips with the therapy of
interacting with people he trusts and feels comfortable with; this is allowing
him to recover. Phillips now deeply regrets the abuse he inflicted on Sheila,
and believes he is "a salvageable human being".
Executing Phillips will not prevent deaths like that of Sheila; additional
intervention and support for those who are severely damaged, like Phillips,
might do so. Family and friends of the victim are unlikely to derive the peace
they hope for from another death.[ii]
On the other hand, Phillips's execution will probably traumatize a whole range
of innocent people, including his half-sister, siblings, friends, jurors, and
attorneys, as well as other death row inmates and prison staff, especially the
executioners. And many other Ohioans will be shocked and ashamed that their
state is planning to kill a man who caused death while his mind was disordered
because of his horrific childhood.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio has started a petition asking Ohio's
Governor Kasich not to carry out this and other scheduled executions (including
that of Jeffrey Wogenstahl). We urge you to sign it.
[i] Most of the information for this post can be found in the minutes of the
Parole Board meeting, Re Ronald Phillips, CCI #A279-109, held October 16, 2013.
Phillips's more recent clemency appeal, in December, 2016, was also rejected.
[ii]See, for instance, the experience of families of victims of the Oklahoma
City bombing: "6 months after the bombing a poll taken in Oklahoma City of
victims' families and survivors showed that 85 % wanted the death penalty for
Tim McVeigh. 6 years later that figure had dropped to nearly half, and now most
of those who supported his execution have come to believe it was a mistake. In
other words, they didn't feel any better after Tim McVeigh was taken from his
cell and killed."
A service courtesy of Washburn University School of Law www.washburnlaw.edu
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