By Nick Glunt
Beacon Journal staff writer
COLUMBUS: The family of 3-year-old victim Sheila Marie Evans urged the Ohio Parole Board on Thursday not to recommend sparing the life of her rapist and killer.
Akron native Ronald Phillips, 43, is set for execution on Jan. 12. If Gov. John Kasich opts to move forward with Phillips’ execution, he’ll be the first person to receive the death penalty in Ohio since Dennis McGuire, who in 2014 suffered for 26 minutes after drugs were administered — the longest in Ohio’s history — before dying.
The parole board was careful to guide speakers to keep their comments related to Phillips’ case. The clemency hearing was not meant to be a debate about the merits of the death penalty, but rather the last chance for Phillips — who was not present — to be shown mercy.
If granted clemency, Phillips — who has embraced religion in his time in prison — told spiritual advisers who spoke at the hearing that he’s expressed intentions to become a chaplain serving his fellow inmates.
Phillips, who’s been incarcerated since 1993, was convicted of beating and raping his girlfriend’s 3-year-old daughter, who later died of injuries sustained from the brutal crime. Prosecutors noted he did not take responsibility at the time, but his attorneys on Thursday said he’s since accepted responsibility.
“Mr. Phillips is a different person than he was in 1993,” said his attorney Lisa Lagos. “Just like all of us, he’s a different person from who he was at 19.”
Prosecutors, though, argued Phillips should still be held responsible.
“Ronald Phillips needs to have his sentence imposed,” said Brad Gessner, Summit County assistant prosecutor. “There must be justice for Sheila Marie Evans.”
Sheila’s family members were among the last to speak at Phillips’ clemency hearing.
Renee Mundell, Sheila’s half-sister, begged the parole board through tears to deny clemency.
“It makes me sick to think about what happened to Sheila. I used to be confused about the death penalty, but after this case, no more,” Mundell said. “Please give my family justice.”
Sheila’s aunt, Donna Hudson, took about a minute to steel herself before she spoke.
“My niece never got a chance,” she said finally. “It’s been almost 24 years since that little girl died, and he still lives. I don’t understand.”
Phillips’ family and friends also spoke, many alleging Phillips’ actions were the result from two decades of physical, verbal and emotional abuse from his father, William Phillips, who died in the mid-2000s.
Edward Phillips, Ronald’s half-brother, said in a prerecorded video that the abuse at home was so bad that he once ran away from Akron to Pittsburgh. He didn’t trust strangers, so he said he walked the whole way.
“It was a nightmare,” he said of his childhood home life, describing how his stepfather — Ronald’s biological father — would come home from work and terrorize the family.
Another relative described a similar home life in her video. However, she also described sexual abuse William Phillips would impose on her.
“It was the house of hell,” she said. “That’s what it was.”
Neither mentioned Ronald’s father targeting him with sexual violence. However, Phillips told his prosecutors in 2013, shortly before his first clemency hearing, that his father sexually abused him, too.
In addition, Phillips’ mother said in a third video that he had been the victim of sexual assault by a teenage cousin when he was about 7 years old. Phillips’ mother, Donna Phillips, died in January. She and her son made national headlines in 2014 when he tried to donate his organs to her before his execution date.
Daniel Davis, a forensic psychologist, said the alleged sexual violence committed against Phillips should be considered in deciding whether to move forward with his execution. He explained that scientific studies have found that victims of childhood abuse are likely to become emotionally and sexually stunted, leading them to “re-enact” the crimes against them.
In addition, Davis explained it wouldn’t be unusual for a male victim of sexual assault to wait decades to come forward about it. In fact, he said they wait 21 years on average.
“I’m not a lie detector,” he said. “All I can say is that emerging research suggests it would not be unusual.”
Prosecutors, though, suggested the allegations against Phillips’ father and the attempt to donate his kidneys are simply ploys to avoid execution.
“Every time they get a deadline,” Gessner said, “it’s something else.”
Phillips’ attorneys, who also argued that several parts of Phillips’ trial were improper, said their client’s final plea is simple.
“He’s not asking to be released. He’s not saying he didn’t do this thing — in fact, he takes responsibility,” attorney Timothy Sweeney said. “He’s asking to live the rest of his life in prison. He has a life worth sparing.”