Ronald Phillips is scheduled to die on Wednesday, July 26. It is the seventh time this death row inmate in Ohio has been slated for execution since he was sentenced in 1993 for brutally killing a child. Mr. Phillips’s crime was horrendous: He raped and beat to death his girlfriend’s 3-year-old daughter, Sheila Marie Evans. That was 24 years ago when Mr. Phillips was 19 years old.
Today, Ron Phillips is an unofficial chaplain at Ohio’s Chillicothe Correctional Institution. He attends multiple church services each week and has spent time with other inmates discussing Bible readings and life’s challenges.
Chris Gebhart, a retired businessman and practicing Catholic, has worked with multiple death row inmates at the prison since 2012. Ron Phillips at 43 years old is a very different man from the disturbed young adult who killed Sheila Marie in 1993, says Mr. Gebhart. He has visited Mr. Phillips regularly, sitting shoulder to shoulder with the inmate for two hours every month, sharing stories and studying the Bible. Mr. Phillips is now a nondenominational Christian who deeply regrets what he did. “He is close to God,” says Mr. Gebhart. “He feels it, and he is concerned about others. I would trust him with my life. I can’t say that about too many people.”
National media are now watching the stories of Ron Phillips and two other Ohio inmates for their implications for death row prisoners across the country. All three are supposed to die by lethal injection using a cocktail of drugs that may not properly anesthetize prisoners. (Their attorneys are hoping to postpone execution once again by taking their cases to the Supreme Court.) But Mr. Phillips’s story also raises a greater question: Can a person change so dramatically over the course of two-plus decades that he no longer deserves to die?
Can a person change so dramatically over the course of two-plus decades that he no longer deserves to die?
Mr. Phillips, says Chris Gebhart, is not asking to be set free. He is not asking for forgiveness, either. But Ron Phillips isasking for his life to be spared and to have his sentence commuted to life in prison without parole so he can spend his remaining days on death row as a fellow inmate and prison minister to his peers. It is something Mr. Phillips is uniquely positioned to do, says Mr. Gebhart. “There are guys in high-security prisons that wouldn’t trust outsiders, but they would sit down with him because he’s one of them,” says Mr. Gebhart. “He can do so much good. He can reach people that other people can’t reach.”
The pain and loss that anyone who loved 3-year-old Sheila Marie feels are unimaginable, especially knowing the disturbing details of her final days. In the minutes from Mr. Phillips’s December 2016 parole board meeting, Sheila Marie’s half-sister, Renee Mundell, noted that “Phillips took away her opportunity to watch Sheila grow up.” The minutes describing the meeting also said: “It is difficult for [Mundell] to face the reality of the pain and fear her sister endured. It makes her sick to think about it.” Both Ms. Mundell and Sheila Marie’s aunt, Donna Hudson, asked the court to serve “justice” by executing Mr. Phillips. In support of their plea, on a Facebook page maintained in memory of Sheila Marie, visitors continually and passionately advocate for executing Ron Phillips.
The pain and loss that anyone who loved 3-year-old Sheila Marie feels are unimaginable.
For many, the details of Mr. Phillips’s appalling crime warrant the death penalty. But a closer look at the ways he has changed over 24 years makes it difficult to argue that the man he has become deserves to die. According to those same 2016 parole board minutes, “Phillips insisted what he did to Sheila was wrong, and he is the only person responsible for his actions.” He said that he is “not the same arrogant, immature and selfish person who committed those crimes.” He requested his sentence to be commuted to life in prison without parole. His plea was denied by the parole board eight days later,10 votes to 2.
Killing Ron Phillips will achieve a measure of vengeance, but it will not undo any of the terrible things he did to Sheila Marie. By now, Mr. Phillips’s execution might not even serve justice; killing him releases him from the burden of thinking every single day about the horrendous crimes he committed.
Catholic teaching opposes the death penalty in all but the rarest of circumstances. Pope Francis has gone even further saying, “Nowadays the death penalty is inadmissible, no matter how serious the crime committed.” This case, in particular, highlights why capital punishment should be rejected: Had Ron Phillips been executed 20 years ago, he would not have had the chance to seek and find God, to continually repent for the crimes he committed and to become a leader, an instrument of faith and a voice of peace and love amongst his peers.
How many more people like Ron Phillips—searching for salvation, open to change—fill our country’s prisons? How many inmates could Mr. Phillips serve and bring closer to God if only he could live among them?
Now, as he counts the days until his July 26 execution, Ron Phillips is “taking one day at a time” and praying a lot, says Chris Gebhart. He is hoping others will see the value in working to reform prisoners instead of killing them.
“He believes God is using him to show the world that people change,” says Mr. Gebhart, “and that capital punishment in and by itself is wrong.”