Originally created 11/26/03

Woman's murder verdict overturned after 15 years

RIVERDALE, Ga. -- A woman who spent almost 15 years in prison has been freed after a judge overturned her murder conviction in the death of her lover.

Phyllis June Tate, 58, was serving a life sentence for shooting Donald Echols as he lay in bed the night of Jan. 17, 1989.

She later said she had been abused by Echols and could not control her rage after overhearing him say on the phone that he was going to leave her.

Tate was released on Monday after Superior Court Judge Hilton Fuller of DeKalb County ruled that her sentencing judge made at least two crucial mistakes, including a failure to check to see whether Tate's anti-depressant medication impaired her decision to plead guilty.

"It was a travesty of justice, pleading guilty to a life sentence when you're under the influence of medication," said Drew Findling, her attorney. "Fifteen years have gone by without her having the opportunity to spend Thanksgiving with her children, her grandchildren."

The Clayton County district attorney's office agreed not to contest the overturned conviction. In a brief hearing Monday, prosecutors accepted a new guilty plea by Tate - to voluntary manslaughter - and agreed to a new sentence of 14 years, which already has been served.

Tate has three or four grandchildren, all born while she was imprisoned, Findling said. After release papers were signed at 2 p.m., "she didn't want to worry about fancy meals or anything like that. She just wanted to be with her grandchildren," he said.

A combination of drug influence and confused facts are the only explanation for Tate's guilty plea to malice murder, Findling said. It makes no sense to accept a life sentence without a trial except to avoid the death penalty, he said.

Most overturned convictions emerge from appeals to higher courts. But Tate couldn't appeal because she had pleaded guilty.

Fuller, who was entitled to hear the case because Tate was imprisoned in DeKalb County, ruled Sept. 9 in a habeas corpus petition. A habeas hearing is essentially a retrial to see whether a prisoner's constitutional rights were violated in the original trial.

Atlanta lawyer Don Samuel, an appeals expert, said the ruling also stood out because habeas petitions are most closely associated with death penalty cases. But the most unusual aspect was the application to the guilty plea, Samuel said.

Compared with jury trials, negotiated plea cases are difficult to overturn because defendants have admitted guilt in brief hearings that normally present few opportunities for judicial error.

"It's rare that a guilty plea goes awry," Samuel said.


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