Yeiter sentenced to death in murder

Published 12:04 pm Wednesday, March 27, 2019

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By Gina Castro

It took the Escambia County jury 38 minutes to agree that Brett Richard Yeiter be sentenced to  death by lethal injection last Wednesday for the murder of his father-in-law Paul Phillips on Oct. 27, 2014.

Under Alabama law there are only two punishments for capital murder: life without parole or death. For the defendant to be sentenced to death, 10 jurors have to vote for death. The judge cannot overrule the jury’s decision.

“We feel like it was an appropriate sentence based on the evidence that was presented,” District Attorney Steve Billy said. “It was a cruel act against a defenseless elderly victim with no means of escape. The jury struggled with it. It was their decision.”

However, Billy said Phillip’s family was split because a few family members had fixed opinions on death penalty in any case.

The defense attorney Chuck Johns said that he and his team were surprised that the jury disregarded the wishes of Phillips wife Jewel Phillips. On the day of the sentencing, Phillip’s wife said she didn’t believe in the death penalty for religious reasons and that she still loves Yeiter.

Johns said that Yeiter has asked them to prepare the documents necessary to appeal his conviction. After they set a motion for a new trial, Johns and his team will resign from their role as Yeiter’s appointed counsel.

During the state’s opening statements, Billy described Yeiter’s prior felony charge. He said Yeiter was convicted of first degree robbery with a shotgun in 1986, making Yeiter 18 years old at the time of the crime. The crime was committed on Christmas Eve against a woman in Michigan for money.

Billy said he believes the jury placed a lot of weight on Yeiter’s prior offense and the aggravating circumstances. Billy’s opening also argued the cruel nature of the crime. Billy said the killing of an unarmed, elderly man is what makes this crime so heinous.

Johns’ opening statements downplayed the cruel nature Billy described by saying the only reason this murder constitutes as capital is that Phillips was in his truck during the murder. Johns said that if Phillips weren’t in his truck, this case would have been a regular murder trial.

The state’s first witness on the day of the sentencing was Phillip’s daughter Connie Clifton. Billy asked her about the impact the death of her father had on her, her family and community. She said that both she and Phillips’ grandson Nathan Blair, who heard the fatal gunshot, have had to take medication for anxiety. Clifton also said that the Book of Acts Church her father pastored has since shut down.

The defense called an expert witness clinical psychologist Dr. Thomas S. Bennet to testify the psychological state of Yeiter. Bennet met with Yeiter twice in August 2018 to assess the competency of Yeiter and to see if his personality or background played a role in the murder.

Bennet said that Yeiter shows signs of borderline personality disorder and poor impulse control. He said that could have been caused by Yeiter’s alcohol abuse since the age of 10, his parent’s divorce and death of his grandfather, who Yeiter’s mother testified played a huge role in his life.

Bennet said that Yeiter needs a structured environment like prison, but Bennet also said Yeiter has issues with authority figures. The state later made the point that prison is filled with authority figures.

The state’s closing statements focused on Yeiter’s prior conviction, the cruelty of killing an unarmed 68-year-old man and Yeiter’s very own statement: “Give me the damn death penalty right now. It would be a lot easier than this (expletive).”

John’s closing statements focused on the wishes of Phillips’ wife and Bennet’s testimony.