Attorneys Make Case for New Trial in Murders
Attorneys for a Moore County man sentenced to die in 2007 for killing four people made their case before the state Supreme Court Monday for a new trial.
Phillips, 41, was convicted and sentenced to death for his part in four murders in a mobile home on Heron Road in the Carolina Lakes subdivision near Carthage. Eddie Ryals, C.G. Justice, Joseph Allen Hardin and Daryl Hobson were found dead Dec. 19, 2003, in Ryals' blood-splattered, partially burned mobile home.
A co-defendant, Sean Ray, was tried and convicted separately but sentenced to life without parole. In capital cases juries weigh mitigating and aggravating factors, then recommend life or death. Another defendant, Renee Yvette McLaughlin, is serving a 12-year minimum sentence for kidnapping and being an accessory after the fact to murder.
In oral arguments before the state Supreme Court this week, Barbara Blackman told judges that Southern Pines attorney Bruce Cunningham - one of the original defense lawyers at Phillips' trial - should instead have been a rebuttal witness against testimony by the officer who arrested him. Blackman now represents Phillips on appeal.
It was an issue raised in briefs filed in support of Phillips' appeal.
"The trial court failed to conduct an adequate inquiry into an actual conflict of interest brought to its attention prior to trial and never obtained a waiver of conflict-free counsel from Mr. Phillips," his appellate attorneys said in documents filed with the Supreme Court. "Mr. Phillips lost the benefit of significant evidence about his mental state because he was represented by conflicted counsel."
The question of his mental state arose from a conversation with Cameron Police Chief Gary McDonald, who made the arrest after speaking with Phillips at the trailer where he and the others had gone. Phillips' mother, who was not inside the house with Phillips, had called McDonald and said she would try to get her son to surrender.
She led McDonald to her house where, after some negotiation through the locked front door, Phillips opened it for the police chief but still refused to surrender.
Members of the county's special tactics team pushed their way inside and arrested the suspects.
According to Cunningham, McDonald described Phillips as stoned while the two were at the courthouse for an early hearing before trial.
"I had a conversation with Gary McDonald in the lawyers' lounge," Cunningham said, thinking back. "He said something about Mario's eyes being 'large as saucers' - something about his demeanor. A large part of this case was what Mario Phillips' condition was. There was some issue as to whether I should withdraw and testify."
At trial, however, McDonald testified he hadn't been with Phillips long enough on the day of the arrest to form any real opinion as to his condition. According to documents filed on appeal, had Cunningham withdrawn as counsel, he might have testified as to what the chief told him otherwise. At a minimum, the appeal contends, there should have been a hearing on the question.
Recording and videotaping of statements made to investigators at the Moore County Sheriff's Department is standard procedure now, but that equipment was not in place when Phillips was questioned after his arrest.
Phillips' attorneys at trial did not deny that he pulled the trigger that killed all four victims. Cunningham told jurors Phillips was distraught in the mistaken belief that his brother, Julian, who had been shot in the head that morning in Fayetteville, was dead.
The defense sought to persuade jurors at trial to find that Phillips' capacity was impaired, reduced to the point that his actions would amount to second-degree murder, which would have spared him from facing the death penalty.
Attorneys for the state on Monday insisted none of that would have changed either the verdict or the jury's recommendation of the sentence. The state didn't need Phillips' confession. It relied on an eyewitness.
At trial, Amanda Cooke Varner described to the jury how, on the day of the murders, she had forced herself over the edge of the pickup truck bed where Phillips and Ray left her to die, bleeding from gunshots and 22 knife wounds after being shot and stabbed.
Varner described dragging herself to the edge of a road where a woman came to help her, pressing a cloth against the cuts. She told of hearing the last breaths of her boyfriend of two weeks, Ryals, as he died.
As his appeal (guaranteed in all death sentences) proceeds, he is reaching out for connections. He has made a request for pen pals through a anti-death-penalty Web site based in Europe.
"My name is Mario Lynn Phillips and I am on North Carolina's death row," Phillips posted from prison. "Aries. Athletic. Very athletic. Good at basketball, should've went pro, but didn't stay in school. I'm very humorous, socialable [sic], good people skills, LOVE CHURCH. I'm Baptist. I have been on Death Row since October 17th, 2007.
"I love all music. I believe in God. ... I have no kids, no wife, divorce. I love to write, day dream and talk. I'm the 3rd of 5 kids and also have 6 half brothers and sisters. But I like all friendships. I'm culturally diverse."
Contact John Chappell at (910) 783-5841 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
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