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Man is acquitted in Phillips killing

Jury returns verdict after 6 hours

By Michelle Bradford

This article was published September 26, 2003 at 9:07 p.m.

— A Madison County jury on Thursday acquitted a Huntsville man in a slaying so notorious that it has fueled fear and accusations for nearly a decade and deeply split community sentiment.

After six hours of deliberation, jurors acquitted Clint Eugene Phillips, 27, of capital murder in the 1994 slaying of Billie Jean Phillips, 35.

Phillips, of Huntsville, sobbed on the defense table when he learned jurors also acquitted him of first-degree murder.

"We're thrilled," said Martha Richey, Clint Phillips' mother. "We knew all along this would happen. He's innocent."

Earl "Junior" McKnight, the slain woman's father, rose from his wheelchair after the verdict to hold his crumbling wife, Edna, who wailed leaving the courthouse. Son Robert carried her to the back seat of a waiting car.

"The McKnights have been in this community for 50 years," said Don Martinez, Billie Jean Phillips' uncle.

"They are good people. They are not vindictive. But a wound's been reopened here. Please pray for them."

Prosecutors contended that a scrawny, 17-year-old Clint Phillips bludgeoned and choked Billie Jean Phillips in her bedroom, possibly over sexual spurning. Prosecuting Attorney Terry Jones' case hinged on the presence of Clint Phillips' DNA under Billie Jean Phillips' fingernails.

Forensics made the match last year after Clint Phillips was convicted of sexual assault and ordered to provide a blood sample.

By then, murder investigators had compared DNA of 17 other suspects and thousands of convicted criminals in the state to that found under her nails.

At trial this week, Clint Phillips' defense was that his DNA transferred to Billie Jean Phillips when she scratched him the night of her death. It happened when the two had oral sex in a church parking lot near her Alabam home, the defendant told police.

Clint Phillips didn't testify at the three-day trial before Circuit Judge William Storey. But he told a television reporter after his arrest on the murder charge in November that he was innocent.

"There's nothing in my background that makes me a murderer," Clint Phillips said in the taped interview that jurors watched at trial. "Everyone knows that."

Defense attorney Joel Huggins said his client was a scapegoat and that authorities were pressured by the dead woman's family and a disgruntled community to make an arrest.

At trial, Huggins reinforced that someone else could have split Billie Jean Phillips' scalp with her son's T-ball bat, then choked away her last breath.

Huggins cast strong suspicion on Howard "Rusty" Cain, Billie Jean Phillips' married lover.

In 1994, Cain was Madison's County's deputy prosecuting attorney.

He was an early suspect in the slaying but was never arrested or charged.

"I'm not saying that Rusty Cain killed Billie Jean Phillips," Huggins said in closing arguments Thursday.

"I don't know that. Clint Phillips doesn't know that. But the police have thought that for years."

Cain stood in the back of courtroom for parts of the trial this week but wasn't there for Thursday's verdict.

Police testified that Billie Jean Phillips died between 10:30 p.m. on Sept. 2, 1994, and 6:30 the next morning.

Clint Phillips' sister, Angela Head, and friend Heather Harp said the defendant was with them at the Washington County Fair from 11 p.m. Sept. 2 until 2:30 the next morning.

To the contrary, Arkansas State Police agent Steve Coppinger testified that Harp and Head denied to him that they were with Clint Phillips at the fair that night.

Richey hugged Edna McKnight in the courtroom after jurors filed past Billie Jean Phillips' family without looking.

"Please don't ever, ever give up," Richey told McKnight. "Get a new prosecutor; get someone else to investigate this case."

Huggins said the jury saw enough reasonable doubt to steer clear of a conviction.

"There were several areas of reasonable doubt," he said. "The jury took the time to add it all up. They were really on the spot here."

Authorities aren't sure why Billie Jean Phillips was murdered. But Jones told jurors Thursday that Clint Phillips might have slipped a hint in the television interview after his arrest.

Clint Philips said heavy drinking prevented him from climaxing during oral sex with Billie Jean Phillips the night of her murder.

The older woman, Clint Phillips said, had been teasing him about a "birthday gift" she was going to give him.

"Maybe Clint Phillips and Billie Jean had a date that night," Jones said during closing arguments Thursday. "He went to her house after the fair. Perhaps the alcohol had an effect, she teased him about it, and that set him off."

Clint Phillips turned 18 on Sept. 4, 1994, the day after Billie Jean Phillips' family found her slain. She was bludgeoned with the bat, which was found in pieces at the scene, Jones said.

Police lost the murder weapon when they mistakenly ordered it destroyed.

Jones theorized to jurors that Billie Jean Phillips clawed Clint Phillips' back as he choked her. But an ex-girlfriend testified that marks she saw on Clint Philips' back looked like "sex scratches."

Police testified that the killer staged a break-in at Billie Jean Phillips' home, cutting window screens and prying at doors.

Huggins told jurors that a 135-pound teen doesn't have the wherewithal to beat, then strangle a "scrappy" adult like Billie Jean Phillips, stage a break-in and clean up after a bloodbath.

"That flies in the face of common sense," Huggins said. "That's more [akin] to a trained hit man or two, someone who knows how to clean up at a crime scene."

Three women testified this week that Clint Phillips beat and choked them.

Huggins said the ex-lovers were probably characterizing their side of mutual fights that erupted in souring relationships.

Clint Phillips only got violent with his women after he started abusing methamphetamine in 1997, Huggins said.

"They're trying to poison your heart and mind," Huggins told jurors. "They're trying to take your attention off what happened in 1994. They don't have a case, and they're trying to bootstrap their way into a conviction."

Larry Phillips worried his son might buckle under the stigma of being an accused murderer, albeit acquitted.

"We'll have to move him out of Madison County," the father said Thursday.

"Out of Northwest Arkansas," Clint Phillips' brother, Jade, added.

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