1. Archive

Trial set for son charged in mother's death

When 45-year-old Robert Phillips was arrested two years ago in the slaying of his mother, he said she started the argument that led to her death by telling him to clean up his room. She slapped him, he said, and he responded by cutting most of the way through her neck with a kitchen knife, officials report.

"I actually tried to cut her damn head off," Phillips told Sheriff's Office Detective Jim Blade. "If I'd had a hacksaw, I would have cut her damn head off. That's how mad I was."

Shortly after the killing of Agatha Phillips, 74, on Aug. 27, 1988, two psychiatrists found that Robert Phillips, who has been an epileptic for most of his life, was psychologically unfit to stand trial. He is better now, the experts say, and his trial is scheduled to begin Monday.

Phillips' attorney will argue that Phillips was insane at the time of the slaying. Most of the other people involved in his case agree that, at the very least, he was a disturbed man.

But evidence also will suggest that Phillips' rage might have been the result of more than his epilepsy and its long-term effects on his brain.

For about four weeks before the killing, Phillips had been part of a program to test the anti-seizure drug Topiramate, said Dr. Joe Wilder of Gainesville, who helped administer the tests. And just days before the killing, his dose was increased substantially.

Topiramate was being tested, and still is being tested, for people like Phillips, whose epileptic fits are particularly resistant to other anti-seizure medications.

A court-appointed psychiatrist, Dr. George Barnard, has said in a sworn statement that while Phillips' use of the drug probably could not directly have caused the killing, "I think that there was a change in his behavior after he started taking the medicine, not only by what he was saying, but on the basis of what some of the other people have said about him. . . . He had probably lost some of his inhibitions."

Barnard said Phillips believes that Topiramate contributed to the violence. Phillips is "angry over his belief that the medicine he was on at the time had contributed a lot of his behavior, leading to the death of his mother," Barnard said.

Wilder said Topiramate is in the final stages of testing by the company that plans to market it, McNeil Pharmaceutical. The company would not provide any information on the drug because of Phillips' trial, company spokesman Steve Young said.

Wilder said there has been no indication the drug causes aggression, but "any anti-epileptic drug has to affect the central nervous system. And there may be some slowing down of cognition."

It is not known whether Phillips' attorney, Assistant Public Defender Alan Fanter, will use the evidence regarding Topiramate as part of Phillips' defense. Citing professional ethics, he and the prosecutor, Assistant State Attorney William Gross, refused to comment on the facts of the case.

Barnard, along with psychiatrist Lowell K. Cunningham, initially found Phillips to be unfit to stand trial, but last spring found he had recovered enough to face a jury.

If Topiramate did anything to help release some of Phillips' rage, Barnard said, it was anger that had built up through years of struggling with epilepsy.

Phillips never was able to hold a steady job and never had a long-term love affair, Barnard said. Because Phillips could not support himself, he lived with his mother in Spring Hill and depended on her for most of his basic needs.

She was "probably very controlling," Barnard said, and Phillips was "very frustrated that he had never lived his own life."

Friends of the Phillipses, who also gave sworn statements to the lawyers, said the two argued almost constantly and had a particularly vehement confrontation the night before the slaying.

After the killing, on the morning of Aug. 27, Phillips came to the door of his neighbor and girlfriend, Margaret Thompson, his clothes soaked with blood. He gave her an envelope with $100 in it and said he probably never would see her again.

He then apparently walked to a shopping center near his mother's house on Merrimac Lane, where he called a friend, Robert Klein.

Meanwhile, a friend of Mrs. Phillips, Dorothy Pile, stopped at the house and discovered her body. Sheriff's deputies arrested Phillips at the shopping center early that evening.

Phillips had told Klein he wanted to go a tall building in Tampa and jump off, according to court documents. And Barnard, when he first talked with Phillips, found him to be suicidal and delusional. "He kept saying that people were out to harm him and were making fun of him," Barnard said. Phillips also said "the humane thing would be to give him an injection so he'd just die and be put to sleep," Barnard said.

The depression and delusion were due not only to his frustration about his life but also to "organic brain disease" caused by his longstanding epilepsy, which had affected his mental ability, Barnard said.

For the last two years, Phillips has been at the North Florida Evaluation and Treatment Center in Gainesville. He has improved gradually, Barnard said, and by May of this year "he felt no great anxiety or depression."

Barnard's evaluation was one of the keys in Circuit Judge Jack Springstead's decision to bring Phillips to trial.

Bernard also is likely to testify at the trial whether Phillips was insane when his mother was killed.

In his sworn statement, Barnard says: "At the time of the crime, he would have known the nature and the quality of his acts and the wrongfulness of them . . . so I would consider him legally sane but in a highly emotional, distressed state."