Ronald Phillips: Breakdown of Criminal Justice

A ruling by a federal court makes it more likely that executions will resume in Ohio on July 26, despite warnings that the state’s drug protocol could cause immense pain. The first person due to face this pain is Ronald Phillips.[i]

Phillips is used to suffering pain: his childhood consisted of intense, frequent “abuse, chaos, and dysfunction… in which criminal activity, sexual deviancy, and physical abuse were not only acceptable but were the norm”. His father first raped him when he was 4. His parents taught him and his siblings to lie to officials to conceal the criminality, thus blocking escape routes for the children. As a result, Phillips grew up a confused, ashamed, angry, and guilt-ridden individual.

Phillips finally fled home at the age of 17, having acquired from his upbringing a personality disorder with borderline and paranoid features that left him unable to trust others. Often such individuals gravitate to others with similar disorders; thus it was that Phillips took up with a woman whose problems with sexual boundaries compounded his own ignorance of what constituted abuse.

Phillips insists that when he was abusing his girlfriend’s daughter, Sheila, it never occurred to him that what he was doing was wrong. One psychologist who assessed Phillips explains:
“To someone like Phillips, abusing Sheila was not something that would be clearly wrong in his mind.” 

Sheila died as a result of the abuse at the age of 3½, in 1993.

At the time of his trial, still terrified of his father, Phillips was unwilling to report his own catastrophic childhood abuse, but disclosed it much later; his reluctance to confront the impact of his disastrous past is typical of such cases. His trial counsel failed to ask his step-sister, Mary Phillips, to testify about the abuse in his childhood home. His lawyers and investigator also failed to produce Children’s Services Board records that could have alerted jurors to mitigating factors in Phillips’s case; this resulted in “a complete breakdown of the criminal justice system”. 

On death row a prison Christian group has provided Phillips with the therapy of interacting with people he trusts and feels comfortable with; this is allowing him to recover. Phillips now deeply regrets the abuse he inflicted on Sheila, and believes he is “a salvageable human being”.

Executing Phillips will not prevent deaths like that of Sheila; additional intervention and support for those who are severely damaged, like Phillips, might do so. Family and friends of the victim are unlikely to derive the peace they hope for from another death.[ii]

On the other hand, Phillips’s execution will probably traumatize a whole range of innocent people, including his step-sister, siblings, friends, jurors, and attorneys, as well as other death row inmates and prison staff, especially the executioners. And many other Ohioans will be shocked and ashamed that their state is planning to kill a man who caused death while his mind was disordered because of his horrific childhood.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio has started a petition asking Ohio’s Governor Kasich not to carry out this and other scheduled executions (including that of Jeffrey Wogenstahl). We urge you to sign it. 

Update: Employees of the State of Ohio killed Ronald Phillips on July 26, 2017.

[i] Most of the information for this post can be found in the minutes of the Parole Board meeting, Re Ronald Phillips, CCI #A279-109, held October 16, 2013.  Phillips’s more recent clemency appeal, in December, 2016, was also rejected.  
[ii]See, for instance, the experience of families of victims of the Oklahoma City bombing: “Six months after the bombing a poll taken in Oklahoma City of victims’ families and survivors showed that 85 per cent wanted the death penalty for Tim McVeigh. Six years later that figure had dropped to nearly half, and now most of those who supported his execution have come to believe it was a mistake. In other words, they didn’t feel any better after Tim McVeigh was taken from his cell and killed.”
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