Hours before being convicted Wednesday of slapping bogus multibillion-dollar liens on top federal court officials, Cherron Phillips was up to her usual tricks.
While the jury deliberated at the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse, Phillips, an alleged follower of the anti-government sovereign citizen movement, went to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals six floors above the trial courtroom to try to enter an emergency appeal claiming she was beyond the court’s jurisdiction.
And the night before, she’d filed a letter alleging her court-appointed attorney had “joined the judge and prosecutors in the conspiracy for slavery” and that she refused to consent to the proceedings, court records show.
On Wednesday, the years of frivolous court motions and often bizarre behavior caught up with Phillips as a federal jury convicted her of 10 counts of retaliation against a federal official by filing false claims.
Following the verdict, U.S. District Judge Michael Reagan ordered Phillips taken into custody, calling her “a paper terrorist” who “will continue on her misguided bent” if he allowed her to remain free until her sentencing in October.
As relatives sobbed in the hallway, Phillips removed her teal head scarf and jewelry before being led away by U.S deputy marshals. She faces up to 10 years in prison, but her attorney, Lauren Solomon, said after court that she believes federal guidelines would call for a sentence of closer to 6 or 7 years since Phillips has no criminal history.
“This is just such a sad case, and there are a lot of grounds for leniency,” said Solomon, who indicated Phillips might even qualify for probation.
Phillips’ odd trial featured a star-studded list of witnesses that included former U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald and also 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.
The movement has garnered increasing attention in Chicago’s federal court system, where recent defendants such as Joseph Banks, a bank robber who made a daring escape from the federal highrise jail in the Loop, have claimed to be devotees. For more than two years, courthouse security officers have tailed Phillips around the federal courthouse whenever she has appeared on her case.
Among the victims who testified about Phillips’ liens was U.S. District Judge Joan Lefkow, whose husband and mother were slain in 2005 by a crazed litigant, leading to a greater sensitivity for the security of federal officials in Chicago.
With her conviction, Phillips, 44, joined three other immediate family members in federal custody. Her parents, Wayne and Betty Phillips, are in prison for a 2012 tax evasion conviction -- a case that also featured a number of strange pro se filings challenging the jurisdiction of the court, records show. Her brother, meanwhile, is serving a 6 1/2-year sentence for his drug conviction, records show.
Shortly before closing arguments began Wednesday, Phillips declined to testify in her own defense, telling the judge, “in personam jurisdiction is not on the record….I have not consented to this legal process.”
“I am interpreting that as a waiver of your right to testify,” said Reagan, who typically sits in federal court in southern Illinois.
In his closing argument, Assistant U.S. Attorney Nathan Stump told jurors the liens for $100 billion each filed by Phillips may have sounded like a joke but the case was “not a laughing matter.”
Solomon told the jury that Phillips may have acted out of empathy for her brother and the “powerlessness” she felt over his drug case. Solomon likened the case against Phillips to someone being charged with counterfeiting for trying to pass Monopoly money.
“(The documents) are absurd on their face,” Solomon said.
Reagan had barred either side from mentioning the sovereign citizen movement during the three-day trial to avoid prejudicing the jury. But Solomon hinted at ideology in her closing argument, saying Phillips had “relied on a group of people” who disseminated information about filing liens “probably on the Internet.”
The jury deliberated about 2 1/2 hours before reaching the verdict. Phillips was acquitted of two counts involving liens allegedly placed against Chicago police officers involved in her brother’s case. The jury had sent a note during deliberations asking if the Chicago officers qualified as federal officials.
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