A man who spent 45 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit is now free - and he's selling art he painted from his jail cell to get by.
Richard Phillips, 73, was cleared of a 1971 homicide and was released from jail in 2017 after an investigation by University of Michigan law students and the Wayne County prosecutor's office proved his innocence. Last year, he became the longest-serving inmate in America to be granted exoneration, The Associated Press reported.
According to a Michigan law, Phillips could be eligible for more than $2 million in compensation -- $50,000 for every year he spent wrongfully imprisoned. However, the matter with the state is unsettled, and in the meantime, he says he needs cash.
Phillips says painting was his escape while facing a life sentence in a Michigan prison.
"I didn't actually think I'd ever be free again. This art is what I did to stay sane," the former auto worker said.
He was able to get painting supplies by selling handmade cards to other inmates. Every morning, when his cellmate was gone, he would bring out his watercolors and paint scenes that inspired him, such as photos he saw in newspapers. However, because of prison rules, he wasn't allowed to keep his art, so he sent them to a pen pal in New York for safe keeping.
Once he was released, he said he visited the pen pal and was relieved to find more than 400 of his watercolor paintings in excellent condition. Now, he has about 50 of them on display at a Detroit art gallery, hoping to sell them and make some money for basic needs.
Still, Phillips says it's tough to part with his paintings. "These are like my children," he told The Associated Press.
"But I don't have any money. I don't have a choice. Without this, I'd have a cup on the corner begging for nickels and dimes. I'm too old to get a job," he continued.
Phillips' petition for compensation is currently being reviewed by Michigan's attorney general, Dana Nessel. According to a spokesperson, the decision is difficult, because Phillips has an unresolved disputed conviction in a different state.
Phillips remains positive about the future. His attorney, Gabi Silver, called him one of the "warmest, kindest, most considerate" people she had ever met.
"To suffer what he has suffered, to still be able to find good in people and to still be able to see the beauty in life — it's remarkable," she said.