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Phillips leaving DA’s office

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By Susan Sharp

After 33 years as district attorney general for the Eighth Judicial District Paul Phillips has decided to retire.

“I want to leave at a point where I still have the health to do something else,” Phillips said on Tuesday. He said he hopes whatever that something is would be “useful.” But he doubts his new path will be practicing law.

In 1980, Phillips was elected to his first term as district attorney general. In 1982, he was again elected establishing a pattern of winning the election every eight years. His next run for the office would have been in 2014.

Instead he believes the time has come to go in a new direction.

But as he prepares for that chapter, Phillips said there have been cases that left an indelible mark on his life. Among those was a conspiracy to commit murder case from the 1980s.

“Seven people conspired to murder a man on  Norris Lake,” Phillips said. The case was initially ruled an accidental drowning. But Hugh Huddleston’s mother was convinced her son was murdered, Phillips said.

Having a family member of someone who has died through accidental means or suicide not recognize the situation as it is can be common, according to Phillips. However, the pleas of this mother, a mother whose son could not swim but yet was in the lake, struck a chord with Phillips.

He opened a preliminary investigation. What officials discovered was that one of the seven men implicated in the case was an insurance salesman. They next learned Huddleston had been murdered for insurance money. This lead to a murder investigation that yielded convictions. Two of the conspirators were given the death sentence.

One is still on death row while the other died waiting to be executed, Phillips said.

But that is not the only reason Phillips remembers the case.

“It stands out because I learned it is important to listen to people,” he said.

And while Phillips has many courtroom victories he could boast about, that is not what his legacy will be.

That is in the brick and mortar form.

Because of Phillip’s tireless efforts on behalf of the abused children in his district, there is now a place they can go to address what happened.

Fifteen years ago, Phillips began to wrestle with how abused children were introduced into the system designed to prosecute the one who had harmed them.

“It was scandalous,” he said.

In response to this, he set about to create children’s centers throughout his district. Within those walls, children could talk about the abuse. But instead of clinical white walls with shiny medical instruments, the children’s center would offer soft murals, child sized furniture and people trained to specifically assist abused children.

He knew it would be an uphill battle. At that time, only metropolitan areas had children’s centers. There were no rural models to follow, he said.

“I underestimated the job (of establishing a center),” Phillips said. But by being “aggressive” in his pursuit of a center, Phillips saw one open in Campbell County.

“Campbell County really stepped up,” Phillips said.

With the opening of a new building for the children’s center this year, Phillips is confident the good work will continue.

Another item Phillips is pleased about is the offices the district attorney’s office will occupy in the new justice center.

“We worked on that for a long, long time,” he said. Aside from obtaining the space, Phillips said the state had agreed to pay for the offices.

Phillips will officially leave the district attorney’s office on Aug. 31. On Aug. 30 a reception will be held in his honor from 3 p.m. until 5 p.m. at the Whiterock Baptist Church in Huntsville. Phillips joked that he was worried about poor attendance because people may think it is a fundraiser. “This event is free and open to everyone,” Phillips said.

Taking Phillips’ place will be Lori Phillips- Jones.

Phillips-Jones graduated from the University of Tennessee Law School in 1999 and has been with the Eighth Judicial District Attorney’s Office since 1997. She has served as a criminal investigator and a violent crimes prosecutor as the assistant district attorney general.

“It is a great honor to be chosen by Gov. Haslam to serve as district attorney general,” Phillips-Jones said in a press release. “I look forward to continuing to serve the citizens of the Eighth District.”