Making It Right

Jessie Phillips wants more than a not-guilty verdict in a five-year quest to clear his name

If this were Hollywood, the story line would be clear -- an unassuming, straight-arrow black man gets wrongly arrested and accused of theft on the campus of a wealthy private college; he beats the rap, sues to clear his name and is vindicated.

But Jessie Phillips, a 44-year-old county worker, is slowly learning that Houston isn't Hollywood. He was easily enough found not guilty of stealing a computer, but the five years since that verdict have been a frustrating tour through the civil-justice system for the soft-spoken man from a rugged near-northside neighborhood.

He has gotten bad legal advice; he has ignored good legal advice. He has seen his entire roster of witnesses in his suit against Rice University barred from testifying because his lawyer didn't provide their addresses and phone numbers on the relevant court document. He eventually had to put on his case himself, without an attorney, and saw the judge rule in favor of Rice without ever letting the jury decide his fate. To top it off, he was ordered to pay $15,000 of the university's attorneys' fees.

It would seem that Jessie Phillips has been singularly screwed by forces greater than himself -- from a rich, exclusive college, to zealous prosecutors, to inept or uncaring lawyers, to a courthouse tilted against a lone black man.

But the truth is slightly more complicated.
To Phillips, it's not: In his mind, he was wronged through no fault of his own, and things should be made right. "I knew as much as any attorney as far as what had been said and done by people and witnesses in my case," Phillips says. "If the law is designed to be fair, I should've won that case."

What's right under the law, however, isn't always what's fair; the judge in Phillips's civil case actually had little choice but to rule as she did. And Rice University, far from being vindictive, actually made earnest efforts to settle the case at no cost to Phillips, even though the university's attorneys were assured of victory. And despite the ruling they got from the judge, the school has consciously decided not to pursue getting the $15,000 from Phillips.

If this were Hollywood, the less-dedicated cast of characters who've told Phillips he should give up his fight would be ignored as he selflessly pursued his lonely fight for eventual vindication. But this is real life, and sometimes there's a good reason people give such seemingly cold, ignoble advice.

Jessie Phillips isn't going to win his fight. He was wronged, but there's little he can do about it. He has a strong, black-and-white view of right and wrong, however, and he simply can't accept that answer. Now he wants to sue the lawyers who represented him in the civil suit.

Instead of working his way toward triumph, he may simply be digging himself into a deeper hole.

There are few people, it would seem, less likely to get in trouble than Jessie Phillips. A Houston native, he worked at Armco Steel Company for 11 years and figured to retire there, until the early-'80s recession led to layoffs. Since then, he has opened a dry-cleaning shop and a gift shop, but neither survived; now he works as a building superintendent in the Spring Branch/Memorial branch of the county's library system. He also manages a combination convenience store and gas station and works as a general jack-of-all-trades for a local anesthesiologist.

He's single. A steady girlfriend of long standing lives in California, but Phillips can't move because he cares for, and lives with, his ailing elderly mother.

He'd never been arrested or so much as stopped for a speeding ticket. In answer to interrogatories in his civil suit, Phillips could list only one incident when he ran afoul of the law: at Kashmere High School, back in more innocent days, he was once late to class and was given a choice of three days' suspension or three "pops" with a paddle. He opted for the suspension.

Phillips is quick enough to smile or laugh, but he's not the world's most talkative guy. Even as he relates episodes that obviously caused him a lot of pain, he's calm and straightforward, hoping the facts will speak for themselves.

"They don't come any better than Jessie Phillips," says James Farmer, an attorney and longtime friend who represented him in his criminal case. "If he tells you something, you can take it to the bank.... He is one of a handful of criminal clients I've had in 22 years of practicing law who, after the not-guilty verdict came in, still made payments on what he owed me and paid it off."

Farmer first met Phillips in the mid-'80s, when the former steelworker had a dispute over unemployment with the Texas Employment Commission. Phillips had gotten a job as a security guard, but the company went broke after giving him only one paycheck. Instead of cashing it, Phillips mailed the paycheck to the TEC, which had not yet processed the paperwork to stop his unemployment payments; the bureaucratic reaction, Farmer says, was to file a lawsuit "telling Jessie to give back all the unemployment he had received and agree that he would never again be eligible for payments."

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