Phillips sentenced to 18 years in prison
FAIRPLAY – Family members and friends of Marcus Shirley and Charles Graham gasped and applauded Tuesday when a judge sentenced Lee Phillips to 18 years in jail.
He could have been sentenced to as many as 24 years or as little as 12 years.
Phillips, 41, of Hartsel in Park County, pleaded guilty to vehicular homicide and vehicular assault following a Jan. 15 crash in which 19-year-old Shirley was killed and Graham, now 21, was seriously injured. Graham is from Breckenridge, Shirley was from Farmer’s Korner.
Graham said the sentence, which followed a recommendation made by District Attorney David Thorson, was more than he had hoped for.
“I didn’t think he’d get the full sentence,” Graham said, but he added that his recovery is far from complete. “I hurt every day,” he said. “I wake up and I hurt. I already have arthritis. All the stuff I used to thrive on, I can’t do.”
Phillips was southbound on Highway 9 near Fairplay Jan. 15 when he lost control of his car, striking an oncoming car driven by Graham. When Phillips took a breathalyzer test three hours after the crash, his blew a .198 – almost twice the legal limit for driving under the influence.
He was charged with DUI – his fourth such arrest since 1995 – as well as vehicular homicide and vehicular assault. In July, he pleaded guilty to the vehicular homicide and vehicular assault charges; the DUI charge was dropped as part of a plea agreement.
“The sentence is just,” said Jerry Shirley, Marcus Shirley’s father, who after the sentencing gathered with family and friends outside the Park County Courthouse. “In my mind, this puts some teeth back in the law.”
Jerry Shirley, who wore a photograph of his son in an ice hockey uniform affixed to his shirt, said he was glad Judge Kenneth Plotz suggested Phillips’ previous DUI-related sentences and punishments for parole violations hadn’t been firm enough.
In sentencing Phillips, Plotz told him he doesn’t believe the Grahams and Shirleys hate Phillips.
“I would suggest these people hate and despite the system that allowed you to fall through the cracks,” he said. “It’s your responsibility, but you should have been held to your responsibility.”
Plotz also said he couldn’t disagree with Phillips’ attorney, Rod Loomis, who said his client was “the most sincere person in the world,” a good father to his 12-year-old daughter and 15-year-old son.
“No matter what I do, everybody gets hurt,” Plotz said, addressing Phillips. “The fact that you’re a good and sincere person makes your case so much more of a tragedy. It’s easy to sentence someone who is violent or mean or doesn’t have a nice family.
“You are, unfortunately, and I’m sad to say this, a dangerous person. I feel as long as you are on the road, the public is not going to be protected. I believe a long sentence must be imposed.”
Phillips had no visible reaction to the sentence, but moments before it was handed down, he stood before the courtroom and apologized to both the Graham and Shirley families.
“I would give my life to have Marcus back,” he said. “Mr. and Mrs. Shirley and their daughter, I’m so sorry. To Charles Graham, I’m sorry for the pain I caused you. I thank God every day you’ll recover from your injuries.”
Shirley’s older sister, Jennifer, made a moving statement to the judge when she tearfully described her relationship with the young man she called her best friend.
“I feel an ache in my heart that will never go away,” she said. “Lee Phillips made a choice that night, the choice to drink and drive. The choice I didn’t get to make was growing old with my best friend.”
Phillips’ wife, Pam, also made a plea to Plotz, encouraging him to see her husband as she does.
“Lee’s a good person,” she said. “His drinking seems to get the best of him.”
“Today doesn’t bring any pleasure to any of us,” Jerry Shirley said in his statement. “I know the Phillips family is suffering. They’re victims of him, too.”
Jane Reuter can be reached at 668-3998, ext. 229, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
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