After deliberating more than eight hours over two days, a Jefferson County Circuit Court jury found Lester Phillips guilty of second-degree murder in the June 12, 2012, shooting death of Leroy Collins Jr.
Collins, 35, was shot on the parking lot of an apartment complex in the 1300 block of South Maple Street and taken to Jefferson Regional Medical Center where he was pronounced dead.
Prosecutors alleged that Phillips arranged for Collins and another person to buy drugs for Phillips, then became angry when Collins said he was robbed of the money.
Phillips was sentenced to 40 years in prison and, because of two prior felony convictions for violent crimes, will have to serve 100 percent of that sentence with no possibility of parole.
The jury of 10 women and two men also found Phillips guilty of using a firearm during the commission of the crime, but imposed no sentence for that offense.
The verdict came as a surprise to attorney John Cone of the Public Defender’s Office, who represented Phillips, so much so that Cone asked Circuit Judge Berlin Jones to declare a mistrial, a request Jones denied.
Cone was upset about several notes that had been sent to Jones from members of the jury prior to their returning with the verdict, including one from a juror who said they had “voted not guilty. I’m not going to change my mind,” and asked “why do I have to stay in here?”
That note was sent at about 11:30 a.m., just before the jury broke for lunch, and Cone said he should have been notified of the note, as well as others from jurors, saying that because the jury returned a guilty verdict, he felt that the juror who had sent the note had been pressured to change their mind.
Jones responded that since the note did not come from the foreman of the jury, he considered it a non-entity and did not respond to it.
When the jury came back in at about 2:20 p.m., Jones told the foreman that he had received no communication from them and assumed they had not reached a verdict when the female foreman said they did have a verdict.
After Cone’s request for a mistrial was rejected, the jury was brought back in and polled and all 12, including the juror who had sent the note said the verdict was their “well and just decision.”
Testifying during the penalty phase, Pearl Collins, the wife of Leroy Collins Jr., said she and her husband had two children, a 1-year-old who was 6 weeks old when her husband was killed, and an 11-year-old who was 9 at the time.
She said on the day Collins was killed, he “kept picking up the baby, kissing him and telling him he would be back.”
Pearl Collins said her husband would take the other son fishing, riding around and would play games with him.
“There wasn’t very much of a Christmas last year because his father was killed,” she said, adding that Leroy Collins also had three other children, and Deputy Prosecutor Cymber Gieringer talked about all those children in her closing argument during the penalty phase.
“Leroy Collins wasn’t engaging in church choir behavior but that child who was 6 weeks old when he was killed didn’t know that,” Gieringer said. “That 11-year-old who wants to know why his daddy is not coming back didn’t know that either and they and three other children don’t have a father.”
No murder weapon was recovered and the only eyewitnesses to the shooting, Tony Martin and Alvin Glover, were both allegedly involved in drug activity, with Martin accompanying Collins when he went to purchase drugs for Phillips, and Glover, who is currently serving a prison sentence for drug and weapons charges, as well as a parole violation.
“They both admitted improper conduct,” Gieringer said during her closing argument Tuesday afternoon. “They were there and saw Lester Phillips get out of a van, walk to the apartment . . . and they saw Lester Phillips pull a gun and shoot Leroy Collins in the head.”
After the jury verdict, Prosecuting Attorney S. Kyle Hunter talked about what has become a frequent fact in his office: cases involving drugs and violence.
“In the last decade, so many of our homicides have involved people involved in the drug trade and it’s important for us to prosecute even though they involved witnesses and evidence from that trade,” Hunter said. “[Deputy prosecutors] Rik [Ramsey] and Cymber did a good job putting the case before the jury and we’re satisfied with the verdict because Phillips will have to serve every day of that 40 years.”
It was also a gun crime, a crime that Gieringer said prosecutors are trying to crack down on by seeking lengthy prison sentences for offenders.