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Appeals court strikes down death sentence for Newport Beach man

March 16, 2012 |  5:48 pm

A Newport Beach man who murdered one criminal accomplice in 1977 and shot, torched and hit another with his car in a failed attempt to kill him had his death sentence struck down Friday by a divided federal appeals court.

Richard Louis Arnold Phillips' due process rights were violated by prosecutors during his 1980 trial in Madera County when a key witness -- Phillips' girlfriend at the time of the shootings -- lied about having been promised immunity for her role in the crimes, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said in a 2-1 ruling.

The state attorney general's office now faces the choice of conducting a new penalty phase trial for Phillips, 62, or having his sentence converted to life without the possibility of parole. A spokeswoman for the state prosecutor's office, Lynda Gledhill, said the government was still studying the ruling and considering how to proceed.

Phillips became acquainted with his victims a few months before the crimes were committed in a remote area of Madera County near Chowchilla. Bruce Bartulis and Ronald Rose ran a construction business together and were rebuilding two houses near Phillips' waterfront home in Newport Beach. Phillips initially drew the men into a scheme to buy cocaine, then switched to promising them cheap stolen insulation and other building materials when the contractors couldn't come up with enough money for the drug purchase.

The two contractors met Phillips and his girlfriend, Sharon Colman, on a back road near Chowchilla, where Phillips shot Bartulis to death and fired five rounds into Rose. After removing cash from the wallets of the two men both thought to be dead, Phillips set fire to the victims' car, which caused Rose to leap out and shed his burning jacket, according to court records.

As Rose ran around wildly trying to douse the rest of the flames, Phillips got back into his car and drove it into the burning and bleeding man, then drove off with Colman. Rose, "remarkably still alive," as the court noted, was found the following morning by Madera County sheriff's deputies and was able to lead authorities to Phillips a few weeks after recovering from his extensive injuries.

Colman was given immunity in exchange for her testimony against Phillips during his trial on murder, attempted murder and robbery charges. The deal had been communicated to her before Phillips' trial, but she told the court she hadn't been promised anything for taking the stand at a time when she presumably faced capital charges herself.

Judge Stephen Reinhardt, writing for the panel majority, upheld lower court rulings that the guilt phase of Phillips' trial wasn't marred by prosecutorial misconduct or ineffective assistance of counsel, as alleged in the appeals. But Reinhardt, named to the court by President Carter, said that Colman's false testimony about the plea deal she had been promised violated Phillips' due process rights and that his death sentence had to be vacated.

Judge Andrew J. Kleinfeld, appointed to the federal bench by President Reagan, dissented, saying there was sufficient evidence without Colman's testimony to find Phillips guilty of murder with special circumstances warranting death.


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