This June 15, 2017, photo provided by the Michigan Department of Corrections shows Richard Palombo, a Michigan prisoner serving a life sentence, who died from COVID-19 complications on Sunday, April 19, 2020, the state Corrections Department said. Palombo had a key role in the 2017 release of another prisoner, Richard Phillips, who had spent 45 years in custody after Palombo told authorities that Phillips had no role in a 1971 homicide and was wrongly convicted. (Michigan Depart. Of Corrections via AP)

DETROIT (AP) — A man who had a major role in the extraordinary exoneration of another prisoner after 45 years has died, one of 25 Michigan inmates to succumb to complications from COVID-19, authorities said.

Richard Palombo, 71, had been in poor health while housed at the Lakeland prison in Branch County, which has been swept by the coronavirus. He died Sunday at a hospital, the Corrections Department said.

Palombo was serving a life sentence for a 1971 murder. But in 2010, he was granted a hearing at the Michigan parole board with the hope that he might win release because of acute health problems.

During that appearance, Palombo explained his role in the fatal shooting of Greg Harris decades earlier. Then came a stunning, unsolicited admission: He said another man who was convicted with him, Richard Phillips, had no role.

“All I can tell you about Mr. Phillips is I met him on July 4, 1971. It was eight days after the murder,” Palombo told the board.

Nothing happened until 2014, when the Innocence Clinic at University of Michigan law school got a tip and ordered a transcript. Phillips, who had long declared his innocence, finally was released from prison in 2017 — after 45 years as the longest-serving wrongly convicted person in the U.S.

Palombo “was the game-changer,” said David Moran, who leads the clinic and met him in prison with students.

“He came across as very sincere, very credible. ... He didn’t tell us to go out and free that guy. He just said, ‘This is the truth,’” Moran recalled.

Phillips, 74, learned about Palombo's death Tuesday. He said they had no contact during decades in different prisons nor after Phillips' release.

“Had he not confessed, I’d probably still be in there myself trying to stay away from the virus,” Phillips said. “On one hand I'm grateful. But on the other hand, I would have wanted him to do it earlier when life was still young.”

Palombo had acknowledged that he provided a gun that was used to kill Harris in '71, but he still had appeals pending at the time of his death, hoping for a new trial, attorney Susan Meinberg said Wednesday.

"He was glad he could get Mr. Phillips out of prison," she said.


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