The Freedom Fighter?

Everyone at the constable's debate is talking about drugs. How to rid Precinct 7 of drugs. How to tear down drug houses. How to keep the kids off drugs. Nobody is talking about the fact that one of the candidates on stage has been convicted of participating in a major coke ring.

James "Smokie" Phillips doesn't volunteer the information, even when he's asked what he would do about the neighborhood's drug problems. No one asks, either.

Instead, he gives a standard stump speech. If elected constable, Phillips vows to step up patrols by attracting new cadets to work without pay. He talks fast, but his allotted minute is up before he's done. "I was just getting started," Phillips says, laughing.

A youthful 42, Phillips has a hard time looking serious, even in his dark suit and glasses. He smiles more than the forum's other six candidates combined, no easy feat in a roster of aspiring politicians.

But while Phillips doesn't make reference to his drug conviction at events, he's more than willing to talk about it. He likes to call himself a "freedom fighter." It's clear that his biggest fight was for his own freedom: from jail and from a damaged reputation. Only on the first count was he entirely successful.

Phillips had been a sheriff's deputy for six years when he was charged in 1996 with being part of a drug conspiracy (see Tales from the IRS," by Steve McVicker, April 16, 1998). Phillips, the feds said, had protected drug kingpin Wendell Cornett in exchange for cash. A federal agent who'd staked out Cornett's house claimed that Phillips had pulled over his car. Investigators recorded Cornett bragging that if he needed to check out a license plate, Phillips would do it. Witnesses said Phillips was handed envelopes of Cornett's cash; the feds said that Phillips used it to buy a Mercedes-Benz.

But the case began to collapse at trial. Like many deputies, Phillips had frequented Cornett's auto detailing shop. He also made extra cash working the door at the Benz Club, a nightclub Cornett had an interest in. The two men were friendly, but under the relentless questioning of Phillips's attorney, Dick DeGuerin, the prosecutors had a hard time proving a relationship beyond that.

The evidence, in fact, showed that Phillips had bought the new car by trading in an old one. And he'd never pulled over the FBI agent's car -- at least, the agent couldn't identify Phillips and never recorded any such traffic stop in his surveillance logs.

The license plate checks? There was no evidence Phillips ever conducted them.

Those witnesses? All had been offered deals in exchange for their testimony.

Indeed, the star witness, who claimed he'd palmed Phillips $20,000, described Phillips as wearing a brown constable's uniform. Phillips had previously worked as a constable, but at the time in question he was a sheriff's deputy, wearing blue. And the witness had no memory of Phillips wearing a cast, even though he was wearing one as a result of a motorcycle accident.

"Their whole theory of Smokie's guilt was guilt by association," says attorney DeGuerin. "But he didn't do anything wrong. The only thing he did was get too close to Cornett."

Phillips was tried along with Cornett and a bevy of his associates. In closing arguments, Assistant U.S. Attorney Ken Dies spent 75 percent of his time on Phillips, DeGuerin says. "That was his weakest case and his biggest pelt."

After three days of deadlock, the jury decided Phillips was guilty.

But U.S. District Judge Nancy Atlas disagreed. In an extremely rare decision, she threw out Phillips's conviction. Keeping the guilty verdict, she wrote, would create "a manifest injustice." There was, she added, "little or no credible evidence" that Phillips had been a voluntary part of any drug ring.

The U.S. attorney's office, perhaps realizing how many holes DeGuerin had punched in the case, decided against a retrial. (A spokeswoman for the office said the trial record should speak for itself.)

With Atlas's decision, Phillips was no longer a felon. He was, however, out of a job. The sheriff's department had fired him almost as soon as he was arrested.

He managed to get work as a constable, first in Precinct 7, then in Precinct 6, where he still works. He continued to try to get back to the sheriff's department and real police work. The black officer filed a lawsuit against Harris County, claiming he'd been fired before the conviction, while white defendants in similar cases were allowed to stay on the job. He got a cash settlement, but not reinstatement at his job. (Through a spokesman, Harris County Attorney Mike Stafford declined comment.)

Phillips applied to the Houston Police Department and squads for the North Forest school district and Texas Southern University, but there were always the questions: Have you ever been convicted of a felony? Well, yes, but it was complicated…

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske