Former U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald is no stranger to the inside of a federal courtroom, but on Tuesday he found himself in an unusual position: on the witness stand testifying at a bizarre trial of a sovereign citizen follower who allegedly had tried to place a bogus $100 billion lien on his residence.
Prosecutors contend Cherron Phillips had retaliated against Fitzgerald and other top federal court officials in Chicago after she had been barred from the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse following her allegedly disruptive behavior at proceedings in her brother Devon’s drug case.
Near the end of his testimony, Fitzgerald drew smiles from some jurors when was asked whether he owed Devon Phillips $100 billion as the lien claimed. Fitzgerald leaned forward in the witness chair, raised one eyebrow and spoke directly into the microphone.
“I don’t owe anyone $100 billion, and I don’t believe I owe Devon Phillips a penny,” Fitzgerald said.
Prosecutors also called as witnesses U.S. District Judge Joan Lefkow as well as a current and former magistrate judge – among the dozen federal judges, prosecutors, court clerks and police officers targeted with frivolous court filings and bogus liens on their homes and other properties.
Phillips, 44, who also goes by the name River Tali Bey, is on trial on 12 counts of retaliation against a federal official by filing false claims. Prosecutors allege Phillips was angered after then-Chief U.S. District Judge James Holderman sign an executive order in February 2011 barring her from the courthouse and from filing documents.
A month after the executive order, Phillips allegedly went to the Cook County recorder of deeds' downtown office and started filing false maritime liens -- essentially a claim of a debt attached to a piece of property that can hold up any sale of the asset.
Holderman testified Monday that he laughed off a document mailed to him in 2011 that purported to be an indictment and demanded he appear at a public library branch on the Far South Side or face arrest.
At the outset of testimony Tuesday, Lefkow, the judge who presided over Devon Phillips’ case, told jurors she’d been named in a bizarre lien that demanded a freeze on all property “including but not limited to” her bank accounts, retirement funds, stocks, securities, cash, jewelry, houses, watercraft and any farming supplies and equipment.
The slaying of Lefkow’s husband and mother in 2005 by a crazed litigant led to a greater sensitivity for the security of federal officials in Chicago.
Lefkow said she recognized Cherron Phillips’ name as one who filed the lien because she’d been vocal in court during her brother’s case. He ended up pleading guilty to drug conspiracy charges.
“She came to court a number of times to sit in the pews,” Lefkow testified. “She had a very, I would say, confident bearing, and wore something on her head – a scarf. It looked kind of like a hat.”
Last year, Lefkow testified, a letter arrived in her chambers signed by Phillips that apologized for her “tremendous mistake” in filing the liens.
“I had no intentions of causing harm…I make no excuse for taking bad advice,” the letter read, according to a copy that was projected onto a screen in the courtroom.
“I have two words: FORGIVE ME,” the letter ended .
Identical letters were also sent to Holderman, U.S. Magistrate Judge Geraldine Soat Brown and Arlander Keys, a retired magistrate judge, according to trial testimony.
Philips’ trial has cast a spotlight on the tactics of those who claim to be sovereign citizens, an anti-government movement whose adherents often file nonsensical, complex legal documents and refuse to accept or follow court rules.
Phillips professed in court well before trial that she doesn't recognize the federal system and that a jury of U.S. citizens would not be a jury of her peers.
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