William Phillips

The Knapp Commission was a Federal sting uncovering police corruption. Its star witness was William Phillips, an officer who, on May 12, 1971, was captured on audiotape accepting a bribe. Phillips turned informant, and his testimony before grand juries led to the indictments of 17 policemen.

By summer 1972, Phillips was in pre-trial hearings for the murder of a prostitute and her pimp at an East Side brothel on Christmas Eve 1968.

Phillips insisted he was being framed. He secured F. Lee Bailey as his attorney, but John Keenan, chief of the homicide bureau at the Manhattan DA’s office, served as prosecutor. The trial was frequently packed with lawyers, eager at “a chance to see a case tried right.”

Bailey picked at qualifications in eyewitness’s identification of Phillips, but when Phillips took the stand, Keenan masterfully fed the defendant just enough rope to hang himself in a lie. On August 10, 1972, the jury returned without a verdict and the judge declared a mistrial.

Bailey dropped out of Phillips’s retrial, begun in August 1974. This time, Phillips was convicted and sentenced to 25 to life in 1975, but the conviction was overturned in 1980, because Keenan learned one of the jurors had applied for a job with his office a week before the verdict was read. On January 25, 1982, the Supreme Court ruled 6-to-3 that the overturned conviction was an error on the part of the lower Federal courts.

Phillips served 32 years and was released in September 2007.