Originally created 08/15/98

Murder suspect pleads guilty



Sonny Martin died pleading for the lives of his children, shotgunned as he stepped in front of a weapon to shield his family during a confrontation.

His 21-year-old son-in-law, Michael Andrew Phillips, will spend the rest of his life in prison after admitting in court Friday to killing the older man while threatening the family of his estranged wife almost a year ago.

"Mr. Martin told him, `Please don't kill my family. If you've got to kill anyone, kill me,"' said District Attorney Danny Craig, who called the crime "wantonly vile."

"The defendant said `OK,' put the gun to his chest and shot him," he said.

Mr. Phillips pleaded guilty to murder, aggravated assault and a weapons charge in a plea agreement that called for a sentence of life without the possibility of parole, plus 25 years.

Mr. Craig had said he would seek the death penalty if the case went to trial.

Mr. Phillips was arrested in the early morning hours of Oct. 1 after police convinced him to put down a shotgun, which he put in his mouth during a 3 1/2 -hour standoff at his mother's house in Martinez.

Officers had been looking for him since Mr. Martin's wife told them he shot the older man after showing up in their yard, demanding to see their oldest daughter and threatening them while three children -- including Mr. Phillips' son -- were in the house.

His head close-shaven, Mr. Phillips stood looking down as Mr. Craig described an evening of terror for Mr. Martin's family and as Judge Bernard J. Mulherin Sr. sentenced him.

He spoke briefly, indicating that he understood his plea and saying that he could only apologize for his actions.

None of the Martin family spoke before the sentencing, but in interviews with the police, on file with the district attorney's office, Mr. Martin's wife and daughter had described a life of terror, saying Mr. Phillips constantly followed and called them in the weeks before the shooting.

Jessica Phillips, his wife, said he beat her and held a knife to her throat when she asked for a divorce.

Family members were "drilled" on escaping the house or calling for help if Mr. Phillips showed up, Mr. Craig said.

The Martins tried to find an attorney to help with a divorce, but a number of lawyers refused the case because Mr. Phillips' mother worked for a local judge, Suzanne Martin told police.

They called police several times -- and some incident reports were filed -- but couldn't get a stalking warrant, she added.

Ms. Phillips was at school and the younger children in bed when Mr. Phillips stepped from the woods in the Martins' yard carrying a shotgun and taunting them, telling them to choose who would die first, Mr. Craig said in court.

When the couple's young son went outside for a goodnight kiss, Mr. Martin told the boy that he knew the drill, kissed him and sent him inside.

Mr. Phillips started around the house when he heard the boy leave through another door and threatened to kill the child -- which is when Mr. Martin offered his own life, Mr. Craig said.

Mrs. Martin told police she ran and screamed for help when Mr. Phillips followed her son, and she yelled at the boy to get under cover when Mr. Phillips pointed the gun at the child.

Mr. Phillips' defense attorneys said he had been hospitalized almost annually since he was 13 years old, had been diagnosed with depression and displayed impulsive behavior.

An admission form to Georgia Regional Hospital after he was arrested said he appeared to be mentally ill and had previously tried to kill himself twice. He is currently on medication, attorney Jim Blanchard told Judge Mulherin.