True's Story

Prosecutors dropped murder charges against Phillip True. Then he was thrown in jail.

The moment of truth and enduring tribulation for Phillip Leroy True III should have ended the night it began.

Shortly after 10:30 p.m. on September 7, 2001, the flashing red lights of a Minneapolis police car appeared in the rearview mirror of True's 1998 silver Plymouth Voyager. There were two other people in the vehicle as the van crossed Lake Street toward the southbound ramp of I-35W; True's 40-year-old cousin, Parrish Martin, was in the back seat; David Christianson, age 39, was sitting up front. As the police siren rang out, Christianson panicked. "Take off, man," he blurted out. "I might've just shot somebody."

According to Hennepin County Court records, this was the first True had heard of the shooting. And he answered Christianson with a single-word answer: "No." Then he pulled the van over. True would come to regard this as yet another in a series of wrong turns in his life.

Erin Eitter Kono

In 1999, True had been riding in the front seat of a car when the driver fell asleep. In the ensuing accident, True was nearly broken in two, his back "severed like a razor blade had cut through every muscle and tendon that [he] had." "At first I had no feeling below the 12th vertebra; now it is up to the eighth. I can feel things around my stomach, but nothing below the waist," he says. When he talks about the injury, True stares straight ahead, his soft face framed by tight black curls and a goatee. "I do believe with the grace of God I'll walk again."

Six months before the crash, True had reunited with his longtime girlfriend, who, although they have never been married, refers to herself as Hope Swan True. The two have a seven-year-old daughter. "The accident was tough," Hope acknowledges. "I still have a hard time dealing with it. Real, real tough. People ask me why I stayed with him, and all I can answer is, he's charming, he's funny. We're best friends."

"After the accident, I wasn't going to be half a man, who couldn't support his family," True says. "I needed something to do and I found I could sit in my chair and frame and mat artwork and sell it to the schools." He opened up an art gallery--called Truly Unique--on Penn Avenue North in Minneapolis, and he outfitted his nearby house on Queen Avenue North with ramps and lifts. He also had his van customized so it could be driven using just his hands. "I was independent," he says simply.

Now the store is closed, the house is sold, and the independence is gone--all because of a chaotic series of events that began on that night in September.

A second-degree murder charge issued against True was dismissed in January. A lesser charge of being an accomplice to a crime after the fact was dismissed a month later. Now the 37-year-old is in the Hennepin County Workhouse because of something he didn't do.

In February, Judge Stephen Swanson sentenced True to a year and a day for failing to appear

at an earlier court hearing where his attorney was to argue--accurately, as it turns out--that there was not enough evidence to justify the charges against him.

Put simply, Phillip True is guilty of not showing up to prove his innocence. His saga is best summed up by Phillip Resnick, his defense attorney. "Phillip didn't trust the system to give him a fair shake. And subsequent events indicate that there was reason for him to think that way."

 

Around 10:00 p.m. on September 7, while a number of people were drinking beer at True's house, David Christianson asked True if he could drive him over to south Minneapolis to meet Thomas Marcum. Christianson says he didn't give a reason for the visit; True says it was his understanding that Christianson owed Marcum $20 and wanted to pay off the debt. True knew that Christianson had been friends with Marcum and his two brothers, Rick and William Marcum, for over 20 years. (In fact, Christianson and Thomas Marcum lived in the same Bloomington apartment building. And, according to Marcum's girlfriend, Holly Spikings, Christianson had once landed her boyfriend a job.)

A total of seven people piled into True's van. Three passengers were dropped off on the north side, leaving True, Christianson, Martin, and Martin's girlfriend Sandrya Groce as the remaining occupants. True then drove to south Minneapolis, where, at Christianson's request, he eventually made his way to the Marcum family home at 3437 Second Ave. S. True then parked in an alley kitty-corner to the house. Christianson walked up to the Marcum home to deliver some crack--payment for the $20 debt.

The following version of events comes from David Christianson's sworn testimony in Hennepin County Court on January 28, 2002.

Just before getting out of the van, Christianson turns to fellow passenger Martin and asks for a gun; True, who is on the phone and has his head turned, does not see this occur. (Christianson never revealed to the court how the gun got in the van. According to prosecutors, however, Christianson informed them the gun was his.)

Christianson believes he needs the gun because Thomas Marcum, with whom he had spoken on the phone throughout the day, has become increasingly agitated, anxious for drugs--to the point of threatening Christianson. (In a statement to police, Holly Spikings would confirm that Marcum's intensive drug use had begun to make him paranoid.)

After William Marcum lets him into the house, Christianson sits down and briefly watches television with some of Marcum's younger relatives. Then Rick Marcum enters the room and the two friends greet each other with a hug. Thomas Marcum comes downstairs and he and Christianson retreat to the backyard to exchange drugs for money. Christianson asks Marcum why he has been threatening him. Marcum then punches him in the jaw. Christianson pulls the gun from the waistband of his Minnesota Gophers sweatpants and shoots into the ground as a means of warning Marcum to keep a safe distance.

"What are you going to do? Shoot me?" Marcum says, and again hits Christianson in the face.

"I seen stars and I felt his body right up against mine," Christianson testifies later. "And then the gun went off and I heard him go, 'Oh,' so I took off running." The bullet passes through Marcum's heart, killing him before he can be rushed to a hospital. As Christianson runs away, his old friend Rick Marcum runs to the backyard and shouts after him: "You are dead!"

Christianson climbs back into the van and says to True, "Okay, man, I've gotta go. Take me to the freeway." True briefly gets on northbound I-35W, takes the first exit and drops Sandrya Groce off at her residence on the 3100 block of Clinton Avenue South. Meanwhile, one of the Marcum brothers calls the police, describes True's van, and notes that the license plate has a wheelchair icon. As True travels from Groce's house to the southbound ramp to the highway at 31st and Stevens Avenue South, a squad car notices the plate and the description of the van. The lights and siren go on and, despite Christianson's plea to keep going, True pulls over. Three days later, True and Christianson are charged with second-degree murder.

 

The murder complaint issued against True on September 10, 2001 is based on a much different scenario than Christianson's.

While searching the van that night, the police dislodged a gold-colored, semi-automatic handgun with a black handle that had been hidden in the passenger seat. In an interview with police shortly after the van was stopped, Martin said that True owned two handguns, one of them a gold semi-automatic with a black handle. In addition, the Marcum family's neighbors, as well as both of the victim's brothers, claim that True's van sped out of the alley with its lights off. What's more, the police reported that just after pulling the van over they could still smell gunpowder. The inference: True not only provided the gun and the getaway car; he knew the crime had occurred.

Phillip Resnick, who has decades of experience as a criminal-defense attorney, calls the case against True "the thinnest murder charge I have ever seen." If True was knowingly driving the "getaway" vehicle, for instance, it would make no sense for him to drop off Groce and then double back in the direction of the crime scene--let alone pull over, against Christianson's entreaties, at the first sign of the police. As for Martin's statement about the gun, Resnick emphasizes that "all he said was that True might have had a gun like that."

Indeed, Martin never saw True give Christianson a weapon or even handle a gun that night. During that first police interview on September 7, Martin does say he saw Christianson stuffing something into the seat when he got back to the van. Martin also noted that when Christianson was away from the van, the stereo was on and the windows were rolled up.

True's bail was initially set at $500,000 and he was assigned a public defender. After a couple of weeks in jail, True hired Resnick, who returned to court and got his client's bail reduced to $75,000. There was a catch, however. The original bail arrangement would've allowed True to move freely in the community from 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.; the reduced bail agreement stipulated that he be on round-the-clock electronic home monitoring, abstain from drugs and alcohol, submit to random breathalyzer and urinalysis tests, and be in contact with a court official twice weekly. According to the agreement True signed, he was also required to appear at all scheduled court appearances--failure to do so would result in additional charges.

A few months after his release, True found himself in a financial bind: To post bail and pay attorney fees, he needed $35,000. The conditions of his bail were altered on October 16 to allow him six appointments for the purpose of his art sales, but required verification and approval of his whereabouts by a court officer. True maintained that it was impossible to complete a sale when potential customers, who worked in the public schools, knew they were dealing with someone out on bail for murder.

Before long, True had something even more serious to worry about: his urinalysis was coming back positive for cocaine and marijuana. "I don't pee like other people. I have a catheter," True explains. "For some reason, something happens in the process that tests me positive. The first time I got out of jail I tested dirty, but the guy [giving the test] was all right with it because when I asked for an instant test it came back with just traces [of drugs]. I was dirty two or three other times, but when I asked for an instant test a second time, it came back traces."

Later, this apparently specious excuse would prove to have some merit. But in the meantime, the court declared that True was in violation of the terms of his conditional release and a bench warrant was issued for his arrest on December 11.

"I couldn't go back to jail," True contends. "I was in the process of trying to sell my house. I owed my attorney $25,000. I wasn't going to face no murder charge with no public defender. The prisons are full of innocent people. I wasn't going to be one of them. So I went on the run."

 

Ironically, while True was a fugitive, the murder charge against him fell apart. More specifically, prosecutors had gotten Christianson's version of events, which was proving plausible enough to make a murder conviction against either man difficult. So they decided to strike a plea bargain that had Christianson copping to second-degree manslaughter. That plea was entered and accepted on January 28. Christianson's court testimony on that date is what has been cited in this story. He was eventually sentenced to ten years in prison.

By pleading out to second-degree manslaughter, Christianson legally admitted that he had acted recklessly and with negligence in causing the death of Marcum. But the crucial difference between second-degree manslaughter and second-degree murder involves intent.

Simply put, by accepting the plea, prosecutors were conceding that Christianson did not intend to kill Marcum. Consequently, True couldn't have intended to kill him either, and the murder charge against him would have to be dropped.

On January 14, two weeks before Christianson's plea was rendered, prosecutors already knew True's murder charge was about to become moot. As a fall-back position, they added the lesser charge of being an "accomplice after the fact." "We knew the factual basis of Christianson's case was moving in a certain direction, and that motivated [the lesser charge]," says Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Paul Scoggin. "Cases play out and you adjust accordingly."

Not coincidentally, this charge was added just 24 hours before a hearing was scheduled to review Resnick's motion to dismiss the murder charge against True for lack of probable cause. True didn't show up. The hearing was postponed.

On February 11, the date originally set for True's murder trial, he came out of hiding. During his time as a fugitive, he managed to sell his house and two of his three vehicles. "My court date was on a Monday, and I think it was the Friday before that I finally got the money together to pay my attorney," he says.

Instead of a trial on February 11, however, the court ruled on matters still pending from the aborted January 15 hearing; the murder charge against True was dropped and it was decided that a trial would be held to determine whether he was an accomplice after the fact. True had to post an additional $25,000 in bail. He subsequently violated the terms of his bail by testing positive for drugs on his urinalysis. This time, he was picked up and taken back to jail.

There was reason to suppose that True had been wantonly using drugs all this time. In 1991, he was convicted of second-degree cocaine possession; seven years later, he was convicted in California for possession of a controlled substance. It's also worth nothing that Christianson, with whom True had spent many hours on September 7, testified that he had personally used about $400 worth of crack on the night he shot Marcum.

But True steadfastly maintains that he was clean, that his catheter was somehow creating false-positive test results. "Why would I do drugs right after I'm put on home monitoring for the second time, after all I'd gone through?" he asks. To prove he wasn't lying, he got Resnick to have the court order another urinalysis while he was in jail. On March 4, after six days behind bars, a test actually showed higher levels of cocaine in his system than before he was incarcerated. True was subsequently released.

At the time he was jailed for the dirty urine tests, True was awaiting sentencing on a plea agreement he reached with prosecutors on February 25. Under the terms of the agreement, True pleaded guilty for "release failure to appear," the legal way of admitting he didn't show up for his January 15 hearing. In return, prosecutors agreed to drop the accomplice-after-the-fact charge and ensure that his sentence on the failure-to-appear charge would be no more than one year (the maximum sentence in such a case would be two and a half years); True and Resnick hoped and expected it would be no more than a few months.

At the April 9 sentencing hearing, Resnick made his argument to Judge Swanson. "The offense that [True] has pled guilty to...is really tantamount to a contempt of court charge. Defendants are told that if they don't show up when they are supposed to show up, they are going to be held in contempt of court and normally, under state case law, the maximum sentence for somebody that is held in contempt of court is 90 days. The maximum that the Court has approved is a sentence of six months for egregious conduct involving the contempt of court." Resnick then pointed out that his client had been forced to sell his house and already spent 40 days in jail: "I think that Mr. True has been punished more than enough for an offense that, under the law and under the facts, he should not have been charged with in the first place."

Judge Swanson didn't flinch, imposing the maximum sentence allowed under the terms of the plea bargain.

"In federal court, I've seen where not showing up has been a totally separate offense," Resnick says. "That usually happens if they don't find the person for years and, in the meantime, all the witnesses are gone and the case has gone away. But in this circumstance, the guy's failure to show up didn't have any detrimental effect on the prosecution's case. I understand the justification for the statute, but in this case, the justification wasn't there."

More than one defense attorney familiar with the True case thinks that the original second-degree murder charge against True was meant to pressure him into providing information with which to prosecute Christianson. Many of those same attorneys believe that the failure-to-appear charge was deployed as another bargaining chip to compel a plea. Without commenting directly on the True case, Leonardo Castro, chief public defender for Hennepin County, says that the County Attorney's Office is making it known that there's a greater possibility that failing to appear will be treated as a separate offense. "I am not aware how frequently this thing is actually used in [cases regarding potential] felonies. My guess is that it is used as a bargaining tool."

"It is important to us that folks know they have an obligation to show up. I don't know if we have been more prominent about that recently or not," replies Paul Scoggin, one of two county attorneys who handled the True case. "I don't agree with the perception that Phillip True received a Draconian penalty for not showing up. He is in the workhouse because he was looking at two obstruction-of-justice charges--one for spiriting away [Christianson] that night and one for not showing up--and he wanted to cut his losses. We believe he knowingly aided an offender by driving him away from the scene. After that, it doesn't matter if he stopped [for the police] afterward. Someone may think differently, but that's what trials are for. He accepted the terms of the plea agreement for the certainty of not having to go through that trial. And I got the certainty of knowing he was sentenced to a year in jail."

Asked why his client settled, Resnick says, "I think he was tired of it and he just wanted it to be over with." Asked the same question, True first mentions the financial constraints of continuing with the case. "As it is now, I already had to sell my house, and now my wife and daughter don't have that place to stay. And as my attorney said to me, it's hard to fight the failure to show up, because I didn't show up. I did feel that if I came in on sentencing day and pleaded guilty, they would give me a lesser sentence. Instead they maxed me out."

Then True cuts to the quick: "You want to keep this real? The reason I signed the agreement was because I didn't appear [at the hearing] and I am going to be a man about it. And the reason I didn't appear was because I wasn't going to serve time for something I didn't do without fighting it. I didn't contribute to no murder and I didn't do any aiding and abetting afterward. I know in my heart that if I had known what was going to happen, I never would have taken him over there."

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