ASHEBORO, N.C. — John Phillips has been behind bars since April 8, 1952, when he was arrested on sexual-assault charges. He was 18 years old and only in the ninth grade, and he was sent to be evaluated at the state mental hospital for black people.
The report classified Phillips as a “moron” and said he had the mind of a child aged 7 years and 7 months. His lawyer entered a guilty plea. The judge sentenced him to life.
After 66 years in prison, Phillips is the state’s longest-serving inmate, a stooped and garrulous 85-year-old man whom inmates nicknamed Peanut and who gets around with the help of a worn wooden cane. Decades ago he lost his desire to live outside of razor-wire fences.
“I ain’t going nowhere,” Phillips said in a recent interview at the minimum-security Randolph Correctional Center. “Too many fools out there.”
His life highlights many issues faced by people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in the criminal justice system, according to Leigh Ann Davis, director of the National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability at The Arc, which champions the rights of the intellectually disabled.
Phillips can’t advocate for himself, in court or in prison. He doesn’t understand the legal process. He lives by prison rules: He has had no disciplinary infractions in 29 years, and before that his offenses were minor—using profane language and gambling.
Though he pleaded guilty, he has since maintained his innocence. The loss of medical and court records makes it virtually impossible to test that claim, but studies of DNA exonerations reveal that intellectually disabled defendants are especially likely to make false confessions.
“How many more people like him exist in our prisons and jails?” Davis said. “We don’t know, because we don’t have the research or data.”
North Carolina officials say less than 2 percent of inmates have an IQ of 70 or less (an IQ of 100 is considered average). The Arc cites a nationwide range from 4 percent to 10 percent of prisoners with an IQ of 75 or less, while the Bureau of Justice Statistics says 20 percent of inmates are cognitively disabled, a definition that includes learning disorders like dyslexia or attention deficit disorder.
Phillips grew up in Durham, N.C., then a bustling town of tobacco and textile factories. His mother was raising seven children in a one-bedroom frame house on a dirt road, just across the railroad tracks from Durham’s poshest white neighborhood.
“I didn’t know my daddy,” Phillips said. “He drank liquor.”
Little is known about his early life, but one anecdote stood out to Irma Timberlake, his case manager in the 1980s and 1990s. Phillips couldn’t swim, but one day he jumped in the pool at his high school and began flailing and shouting. A lifeguard saved him while his schoolmates laughed, thinking he was playing.
He liked the attention, Timberlake said: “He would come every day and jump in the pool so they would laugh at him. They had to ban him from the pool.”
Records of his criminal case are sparse. North Carolina State Archives located 13 pages from court files. Local newspapers published several articles that survive on microfiche. His prison file is voluminous, but officials declined to release any records or discuss his case.
In the spring of 1952, on a Friday afternoon, a 4-year-old girl was attacked near a playground, according to police. Three days later, physicians at the hospital for black residents—at that time, hospitals were racially segregated in North Carolina—examined the girl and told police there was evidence she had been sexually molested.
Phillips was arrested the next day, according to The Durham Herald, which said he “admitted to attacking the child in a thicket behind a recreational center, but that he ‘got to thinking that it was wrong’ and desisted from the assault before completing it.”
It’s unclear if Phillips said anything when he appeared in court three months later.
Rape was a capital crime in the Jim Crow South. Since 1920, 88 percent of the men executed for rape in North Carolina have been black or American Indian. In this case, the front page of the Durham Morning Herald declared: “Plea is Accepted, Allowing Defendant to Escape Chamber.”
The prosecutor read aloud from the mental hospital report, which said that despite Phillips’ mental handicap, he “apparently knows right from wrong concerning the crime he is charged with.”
His defense lawyer entered a guilty plea to accessory before the fact to the crime of rape, which was unusual: An accessory before the fact aids or encourages another to commit a crime but is not present at the scene of the crime.
Phillips showed no emotion when sentenced, according to the newspaper account. “Phillips turned his attention to the pitcher of ice water on the judge’s bench. He stared at the pitcher until deputy sheriffs ordered him to accompany them. His mother, who had sat quietly at his side, called to him. “John.” He turned and she held out a $1 bill. He took the money and neither one of them said anything. Then he followed the officers.”
Phillips was sent to the state penitentiary in Raleigh. Over the decades, he was moved around, spending much of his time in minimum-security prison camps. Timberlake, his case manager, met him in 1989 when he arrived at the Durham Correctional Center.
“Prison was his home,” she said. “It was all he knew, and he knew how to follow the rules.”
Phillips quickly became her favorite. He was toothless and mumbled in a way that few could understand. She became his interpreter and guardian. She humored him when he showed her the patch of grass just outside the prison fence where he wanted to be buried. She found a sponsor to take him off-site to church services and Sunday meals.
He had lost touch with his relatives long before. His world had shrunk to the prison yard, where inmates and officers were his family. Timberlake said that after decades of being told when to rise, shower, eat and watch TV, Phillips was incapable of making choices of his own.
He was first eligible for parole in 1959. Parole commissioners reviewed an inmate’s file and letters from prosecutors, families and crime victims. They did not meet with the people whose lives they held in their hands.
Timberlake said Phillips became upset when he received the annual letter denying him parole.
Mostly he was irritated by the suggestion that he might be freed, which he opposed, she said. But occasionally he had the opposite reaction.
“Peanut said he was tired of watching everyone else go home,” Timberlake said.
In 1991, the Durham newspaper wrote about his status as the state’s longest-serving inmate. The chief of staff for the Parole Commission cited the rape conviction as one reason for his continued incarceration: “That crime casts a red flag.” Another reason: His intellectual disability required a plan on where and how to live upon release, a plan the Parole Commission admitted never having explored.
A young girl reading the newspaper was struck how the man named Phillips resembled her grandmother of the same name, Timberlake recalled. The grandmother took the paper and was shocked to see that her brother was alive.
The family had long thought that Phillips had been killed in prison or died. He believed they had abandoned him. Timberlake said letters in both directions had been returned to sender.
The family began visiting, bringing gifts and depositing money in his commissary account. After the article, Timberlake said top prison officials came to the Durham prison. They feared a lawsuit and wanted to release him.
“Peanut got upset,” she said. “He said, ‘I’m not going anywhere.’”
His two surviving sisters visit when they’re in North Carolina and keep a small balance in his canteen account. They declined to comment.
North Carolina’s four parole commissioners declined to discuss his case, as did prison officials.
Inside his prison community, Phillips roots for the Los Angeles Rams, Lakers, Dodgers and Sparks. He likes to play Friday night bingo and sleep. Fellow inmates are “good,” officers “nice.”
For two years he’s had the same case manager, Shaneese Melton, who understands his mumbled speech and assisted in a recent interview.
Phillips said he still remembers his day in court in 1952.
The judge and lawyers discussed the gas chamber, he recalled. He said he told them he had not committed the crime. Why then did his lawyer enter a guilty plea?
“They told me that I could live.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of years Leigh Ann Davis has led the National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability at The Arc. The center was founded in 2013.