Making it right

STEVE NASH steve.nash@brownwoodbulletin.com
Michael Murray

Sam Moss remembers the phone call he took from a young man named Jacob Gill in December 2011.

It had been about a month since Randall Philen of Brownwood had been found guilty in the December 2009 murder of his brother, Ronald, and sentenced to life in prison. 

"Y'all got the wrong guy in jail," Gill told Moss, who is first assistant district attorney in the 35th Judicial District Attorney's Office. "I know who really killed him."

"Where have you been the last two years?" a skeptical Moss asked.

"New Mexico," Gill replied.

In an interview in District Attorney Micheal Murray's office, Moss and Murray recalled the events that led to the exoneration of Randall Philen and the convictions of four other men in the Ronald Philen murder.

"Here we go again," Murray said to himself as he and Moss discussed Gill's phone call. Another rabbit trail to follow, albeit post-conviction. Prosecutors and police had followed numerous rabbit trails before Randall Philen's trial. They'd followed up on all of them, but they'd led nowhere. Evidence at that time pointed to Randall Philen and no one else, prosecutors and police have said, both inside and outside of court.

But the two veteran prosecutors weren't about to dismiss Gill's claim without checking it out. "How are we supposed to know you're telling the truth?" Moss asked Gill during that phone conversation. Would Gill be willing to come in for a polygraph and talk to the police? Gill said he would — and his information began to check out.

Moss and Murray never actually met Gill, and they don't know his motive for contacting them after Randall Philen had already been sent to prison. Gill claimed to have his information because one of the four men who ended up being charged in the crime had talked to family members. Some of that talk was was relayed to Gill. Gill's brother, at that time, was married to the sister of Alex Gil Jr., one of the four men later charged.

"I remember me and Micheal sitting in this office …" Moss said as he described the "disbelief" and "shock" that a likely innocent man had been sent to prison.

"It certainly wasn't fun, looking forward to doing what we had to do to make it right," Murray said. "It was not fun, knowing an innocent man was in jail. … It's a test of your integrity — whether you'll do the right thing."

"How do you describe it?" Moss said. "You know the fallout that's going to result from it. … We needed time to take a step back and decompress."

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Murray said he wasn't going to do much in the way of Monday-morning quarterbacking, nor was he going to "throw anyone under the bus" in analyzing how an innocent man was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

"We knew, when we tried Randall Philen, it was a difficult circumstantial case," Murray said. "We didn't get here based on one single event of anything." A "culmination of different events" including witness testimony and the interpretation of the evidence at that time led to Randall Philen's conviction, Murray said.

"We've owned it," Murray said. "We've never played the blame game. We regret very much that Randall was put in that situation. Our heart was aimed at justice."

There was no malice on the part of Brownwood police detectives who initially investigated the case, and "everybody believed they had it right," Murray said.

In both of the capital murder trials that were held in connection with the murder — Pedro Rocha's late last year, and Matthew Navarro's earlier this month — Moss acknowledged the situation with Randall Philen, both in his questioning of witnesses and in closing arguments to jurors.

"It's very hard to swallow your pride and admit you made a mistake," Moss told the Rocha jury. "I'm going to tell  you, we made a mistake. Randall Philen should not have been sent to the penitentiary for killing his brother. It gives us an opportunity to right a wrong. … Randall Philen has been waiting a long time for his name to be cleared."

In the Navarro trial, Moss told jurors, "Thank God we live in a place where you can correct your mistakes and right your wrongs. Justice wasn't done for the Philens in the beginning."

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"Obviously we learned a lot from this case," Murray said in his office. "We've obviously developed a relationship with Randall. In the end, everything worked really well. It certainly ended with justice for Ronnie, which was the ultimate goal."

The Randall Philen conviction is a reminder that "you can get it wrong" and "you always have to keep an open mind," Murray said. "You can't be scared of the truth.

When Randall Philen stood trial, he testified in his own defense. During the Rocha and Navarro trials, Philen testified again — no longer as the defendant but as state's witnesses.

"He's been very open to us and very kind," Murray said. "We've talked about the case, including what went wrong in the original trial. There's nothing but positive that we can say about Randall. He's used this as a springboard to turn his life around. He has a lot of supportive people in his life.

"We have talked about the dynamics of everything that happened."

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After deputies led Navarro away Monday, Murray and others remained in the courtroom, talking about the trial. Randall Philen and his parents, Bill and Linda, walked into the courtroom. There were hugs.

"He was very excited to have it all done," Murray said of Randall Philen. "His phone was ringing off the hook."

Murray stressed that jurors who'd convicted Randall Philen "did absolutely nothing wrong." They'd fulfilled their civic duty and made "hard decisions in a difficult circumstantial case," Murray said.

Moss and Murray Repeated that they had no idea why Jacob Gill had chosen to come forward with information that led to the exoneration of Randall Philen and the arrests of four other men. "There's a lot of people who should be thankful he did," Moss said.