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Trial set to begin for man accused in 1994 Madison County slaying

By Michelle Bradford

This article was published September 21, 2003 at 9:00 p.m.

— Investigators spent nearly a decade trying to solve the mystery at the heart of one of the state's most notorious crimes: Who killed Billie Jean Phillips?

Starting Tuesday, prosecutors hope to convince a Madison County jury that they have the answer.

Clint Eugene Phillips, 27, is charged with capital murder in the Sept. 2, 1994, slaying. He was 17 when Billie Jean Phillips, 35, was fiercely beaten and strangled in her Alabam home. The two weren't related.

Prosecutors believe Clint Phillips' DNA, found under Billie Jean Phillips' fingernails, will convict him at trial. But they face the task of deconstructing nearly 10 years worth of suspicion cast on Billie Jean Phillips' married lover - Madison County's then-deputy prosecuting attorney.

Clint Phillips wasn't on investigators' radar screen until last fall when he was convicted of sexual assault in Madison County. As a requirement of the conviction, Clint Phillips provided a blood sample from which his DNA was derived and compared.

By then, investigators had compared DNA from 17 people in the flailing investigation, plagued by persistent claims by the dead woman's friends and relatives of a cover-up and police mismanagement.

Billie Jean Phillips' father drew the focus to Clint Phillips. Earl "Junior" McKnight read about Clint Phillips' sex-assault charge and remembered him as a teen who hung around the convenience store Billie Jean Phillips owned and operated.

Prosecuting Attorney Terry Jones hasn't said publicly whether prosecutors will seek the death penalty against Clint Phillips, but it's unlikely.

Earlier this month, Clint Phillips' attorney said he'd ask for a delay if prosecutors chose to seek the death penalty. As of Friday, attorney Joel Huggins hadn't requested a delay.

Trial is scheduled for four days in Madison County Circuit Court before Judge William Storey.

Clint Phillips denies a role in the slaying, his attorney said.

"His defense is, 'By God, I didn't do it'," Huggins said last week.

Huggins said his client is a scapegoat for prosecutors under pressure to resolve the murder case.

Clint Phillips' relatives said they were shocked by his arrest in November, describing him as normal, energetic and funny.

In 1994, Clint Phillips listed his future plans in Huntsville High School's yearbook as taking classes at the University of Arkansas to become a computer programmer.

That September, prosecutors said, he ferociously beat Billie Jean Phillips until her scalp split and then strangled away her last breath. Two days later, Clint Phillips turned 18.

He was a pallbearer at Billie Jean Phillips' funeral.

At trial this week, forensic experts are expected to testify that it's unlikely Clint Phillips' DNA found its way under Billie Jean Phillips' nails through sexual contact.

After his arrest, Clint Phillips told a television news reporter - whom prosecutors have subpoenaed to testify - that he had sex with Billie Jean Phillips in a pickup the night of her death.

Besides convincing jurors of the DNA evidence, prosecutors will try to show that Clint Phillips harbors a history of violence toward women. One woman subpoenaed to testify is an ex-girlfriend who told Huntsville police that Clint Phillips drugged and raped her in June 2002.

The woman said Clint Phillips also tried to strangle her with a TV cord, punched her in the face and broke a picture frame over her head, a police report shows.

Prosecutors also subpoenaed Clint Phillips' ex-wife. Mikal Phillips told police in March and May 2000 that her estranged husband assaulted her, according to sheriff 's records.

Her stepfather, Skip Selvey, told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette last fall that his stepdaughter feared retaliation from Clint Phillips or his family.

"We just want to keep her name out of this," Selvey said in November 2002. "We just want to keep her safe."

At trial, Huggins will seek to establish an alibi for Clint Phillips. Investigators said Billie Jean Phillips was slain sometime after 10 p.m. Sept. 2, 1994.

Clint Phillips was released from the Madison County jail about 6:20 p.m. after a DWI arrest, records show. He said he and Billie Jean Phillips had sex in the pickup, then he spent the rest of the evening at the Washington County Fair in Fayetteville.

At trial, witnesses are expected to rebut Clint Philips' alibi. Prosecutors have subpoenaed Robert Houston, a man whom Huggins has said attended the fair with Clint Phillips.

Witnesses Shannon and Thomas Edmisten are expected to dispel Clint Phillips' alibi, said Steve Coppinger, special agent for the Arkansas State Police. Coppinger said that a last-minute witness, Carson Avery, has information that is crucial to the prosecution.

Huggins has subpoenaed more than a dozen witnesses, including an initial suspect in the case, Huntsville attorney Howard "Rusty" Cain.

Cain was Madison County's deputy prosecutor and Billie Jean Phillips' longtime, married lover. In the weeks before her death, Billie Jean Phillips pressed Cain to divorce his wife, her family has said.

Days after the slaying, Cain called the state Crime Laboratory for information about the case, and Jones fired him.

Cain was one of the first people at the crime scene. According to Billie Jean Phillips' family, Cain continued to enter her home after sheriff 's deputies ordered everyone out.

Cain denies killing Billie Jean Phillips and wasn't arrested or charged with a crime. But Huggins will likely emphasize the suspicion cast on Cain in an attempt to raise reasonable doubt in jurors' minds.

Prosecutors also subpoenaed Cain to testify. If he takes the stand, it will be the first time he has spoken publicly about the murder case.

In a rare move, Jones asked Judge Storey in January to grant a change of venue and move the trial to neighboring Washington County. Storey denied the request.

Jones is worried about prosecutors' ability to loosen deeprooted opinions that someone other than Clint Phillips is the killer.

And nine years of unyielding media scrutiny worried Jones, he said in a January court motion.

"The murder has been subject to more media attention than any other in the county's history," he said in the motion.

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