Friday, April 4, 2008

Plans to drop case on hold; Prosecutor to evaluate

Instead of dropping the armed robbery case against Elton Phillips, the Louisiana attorney general's office on Monday asked Criminal District Court Judge Dennis Waldron for a week to consider possible new evidence against the suspect, accused of a gas station stick-up. Phillips' case became high-profile after it came to light he had left the gas station and gone straight to the home of then-Orleans Parish District Attorney Eddie Jordan, whose girlfriend knew Phillips. On Monday, Assistant Attorney General Matthew Derbes said he needs the time to examine footage that aired on WDSU on Thursday, the night he announced he would drop the case because of contradictory witness testimony.

The television news report quoted Carolyn Jackson, describing her as Phillips' aunt, who said the 20-year-old defendant confessed the robbery to her. During the broadcast, she said she had prayed with Phillips and he confessed. "I said, 'You need to pray, you need to confess. I need to agree with you,' " Jackson told Travers Mackel with WDSU, according to the clip on the station's Web site. "He took my hand, he held his head down and he said, 'Lord, I am sorry for what I've done.' " "I said, 'Uh uh, you have to say what you've done,' " Jackson continued. "He said, 'I'm sorry for robbing.' And he asked God to forgive him." Jackson, however, told a different story when she was briefly called to the stand by defense attorney John Thomas during the short hearing.

Thomas asked Jackson, "Did he confess?" She replied, "No, sir, he did not." Under cross examination by Derbes, Jackson said that she isn't Phillips' aunt -- in fact isn't related to him at all. Phillips confessed only to "doing wrong" in general while they were praying, she added. Jackson said she drove from her home in Hammond to New Orleans for the TV interview so she could talk to the public about the importance of prayer. Waldron granted the request for a continuance, asking Jackson and the attorneys to return to Criminal District Court next Monday, when they would decide whether to proceed with a trial. Jackson at times appeared distraught by the repercussions of her statement, dropping to her knees outside the courthouse to ask that Phillips' family forgive her.

Derbes had been prepared to drop the case against Phillips because of contradictory statements made by the chief witnesses in the case: robbery victim Roy Joseph and his girlfriend. The Louisiana attorney general's office is handling the case because of the connection to Jordan and the conflict of interest that represents. The case against Phillips ended up having some problems. Neither Joseph nor his girlfriend could identify Phillips as the man who on Oct. 11 robbed Joseph at a gas station in Algiers, taking $800, a white metal chain and a cell phone. The armed robbery charge against Phillips took on prominence because Phillips allegedly left the gas station in a Dodge Avenger, which Joseph followed in his Hummer H2, eventually ramming the fleeing car. Police documents said that Phillips got out of the vehicle and ran on foot to the Algiers home of Jordan and Cherylynn Robinson, the former DA's live-in girlfriend. Both Jordan and Robinson talked to Phillips before he left their house.

They were expected to testify at the trial. Jordan left office about a week after the incident became public, but said it did not play a part in his decision to resign with more than a year left in his term. After the Monday court hearing, Thomas, the defense attorney representing Phillips, questioned why the prosecutor needed a week to consider Jackson's statements, calling them just as problematic as the potential testimony of the robbery victim and his girlfriend. "She is not the aunt like she claimed to be, and she never got a confession," Thomas said.

But Derbes, speaking with reporters after the hearing, said the attorney general's office also has questions about statements made by Phillips' mother, Kim Wicker, to WDSU that her son had been prepared to deal with the consequences of his behavior. Wicker also said that her son did not confess to committing the robbery, adding that she never asked him that question. Still, Derbes said the interview was troubling. "Why was he ready to face consequences?" Derbes asked. Thomas said that Phillips' mother was speaking more in a spiritual sense about her son. Phillips will remain locked up at the Orleans Parish jail until attorneys resolve the case.