Legal Affairs

Prosecutors move against Tiller and Harris

Phelps, a convicted thief, swore he never had a weapon and never threatened anyone. Given that police didn't find a shotgun, it was largely Phelps' word against the word of Woolbright and her cousin. The first trial ended with a hung jury. A few weeks later, while he was awaiting a second trial, Phelps was sent to a doctor after an altercation at the county jail. The jailhouse doctor concluded that Phelps could not have done what he was accused of.

In 1991, Phelps was shot in his right hand while trying to steal a car stereo. The hand never healed -- the two middle fingers are stiff, his pinkie barely moves and his index finger has only partial motion. "He has almost no grip strength, and cannot make a fist," wrote Dr. Jacques Van Ryn in a letter to Judge Autrey. "He cannot hold objects of any size, weight, or bulk; specifically, he cannot grip a weapon and place it into any kind of firing position, and with the loss of function in ... his index finger, he cannot pull a trigger, either. This individual does not have the flexibility or hand strength to pick up even a light gun such as a sawed-off shotgun, aim it, or pull the trigger."

Powerful stuff, especially coming from a doctor employed at the county jail as opposed to a rent-an-expert. But the jury never heard from the doctor or saw the letter, which was dated the day Phelps was convicted. The trial began on July 17, 2000. Van Ryn had examined Phelps three weeks earlier. Jean Phelps says she and her son several times told Tiller and Harris to get in touch with the doctor immediately after the examination, but they didn't contact him until it was too late. Just before opening statements, Harris pleaded with the judge to let the doctor testify, but the judge refused after Harris acknowledged he'd never spoken with Van Ryn.

"You don't even know what this witness is going to say, so how can you make an argument that he is going to say something that is relative and material to your client's defense?" Autrey asked Harris.

On sentencing day, Harris produced the letter from Van Ryn and asked the judge to set aside the verdict, but after prosecutor Catherine Fee noted that Harris had had ample opportunity to produce the evidence in timely fashion, the judge went with the jury's decision. An appeal to the Missouri Court of Appeals, Eastern District, failed, with appellate judges faulting the defense for not promptly producing medical evidence. An appeal is now before Circuit Judge Angela Turner Quigless, who has the power to decide whether Bobby Phelps deserves a new trial. Under court rules, Gray says, contacting Van Ryn and getting evidence before the court would have been Harris' responsibility because attorneys are responsible for the actions, or inactions, of their underlings.

Jesse, who had no legal experience before the CRLDT hired her, hasn't been charged with a crime, even though the state Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel, which investigates allegations of wrongdoing by lawyers, has said she helped convince victims to hand over their money. "She has been cooperative and has provided testimony fully and fairly and hasn't held back anything," Kiernan says. "If she continues to operate on that basis, we don't have any problems with her as far as this scheme is concerned."

Tiller in March sued Sarah Cato, a lawyer who took over for Harris after he was suspended from practice in 2001, claiming that she was responsible for taking money from clients and not performing any work. Named as co-plaintiffs are eighteen CRLDT clients who blame Cato for ripping them off.

In charging papers, Sheppard says CRLDT employees told investigators that Cato inherited a mess created by Tiller and Harris. Kiernan says Cato may be naïve, but that's not a crime. "At least at this point, we don't see anything criminal that she's done," Kiernan says. "Tiller has absolutely no credibility. He can file all the lawsuits he wants to."

Acting as his own attorney, Tiller has also sued the Riverfront Times for libel. The newspaper has denied Tiller's claims. "Truth is our absolute defense, and, in any event, Mr. Tiller had such a lousy reputation anyway that he is likely libel-proof," says Steve Suskin, legal counsel for New Times, the parent company of the RFT.

If Tiller is convicted, Kiernan says, his office will push for a sentence that could put him away for the rest of his life. "He's just a classic recidivist," Kiernan says. "The general public deserves to not be victimized by this guy anymore."

Jean Phelps says all she wants is for a jury to see Van Ryn's letter. She says Tiller called her a few months ago. "He said, 'We really need to get going on this,'" she says. "'We need to do something.' I was real hostile. I said, 'Let me guess: You want me to give you more money.'"

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