Get Out of Jail, Eventually

Photo: Matthe Spiegelman for New York Magazine

New York’s hustlin’ seventies are back, with the release of American Gangster and the documentary Mr. Untouchable, each about a Harlem heroin kingpin. Another legacy of that era is coming out soon, too: Bill Phillips, who’s finally getting parole.

“I can’t really believe it,” he says. A legal war began with his murder conviction in 1975. Phillips was a flamboyant cop who wore Gucci shoes and Armani suits. He drove a red MG and gulped Martinis at P.J. Clarke’s. He flew planes. And he financed that life taking money from pimps and gamblers.

He didn’t get away with it. The Knapp Commission, ferreting out NYPD corruption, caught him and made a deal. He got immunity if he helped the commission catch other corrupt cops. He obtained enough evidence for 31 indictments. Then, after testifying, he was charged with an old murder: a pimp and a 19-year-old prostitute shot on Christmas Eve 1968. Phillips claimed he was framed.

He’s been in prison since. He became a lawyer and won his release on appeal in federal court. That decision was overturned by the Supreme Court. He’s been denied parole four times. Parole commissioners called him “a criminal of the worst kind.”

They also didn’t believe his story. To win parole, one must show remorse. That’s been a bind for Phillips, who insists he’s innocent. “Picture yourself,” he said a few days before his parole hearing last month. “Your life is depending on you admitting to something you didn’t do.”

This time, he fessed up. “I don’t know what came over me to do this,” Phillips told the board. “It’s just like out of my character, you know…This is something that I can never explain fully.” The parole commissioners voted 2-1 for his release, which is scheduled for November 9. He’ll head to a rehab clinic, then to a veterans’ home, and then maybe back to New York. He looks forward to playing golf. Kissing female lips. Eating a Big Mac. And maybe getting an agent—there’s got to be a movie in here somewhere.

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Get Out of Jail, Eventually