Lawrence Phillips, a former NFL running back facing murder chargers, was found dead on Wednesday at Kern Valley State Prison.
Phillips, 40, was a running back at the University of Nebraska in the 1990s before playing in the NFL. His career was cut short by off-field incidents and legal troubles. Here’s everything you need to know.
1. The Death Is Being Investigated as a Suicide
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation released a news release on Wednesday after Phillips was found unresponsive in his cell. The release, posted by Kern Golden Empire, read:
Officials at Kern Valley State Prison (KVSP) are investigating the death of inmate Lawrence Phillips as a suspected suicide. The incident occurred at 12:05 a.m. Wednesday, Jan. 13, when staff conducting security checks found Phillips, 40, unresponsive in his cell. He was transported to an outside hospital where he was pronounced deceased at 1:27 a.m. Next-of-kin has been notified.
According to the Kern Valley State Prison, Phillips had been in an Administrative Segregation Unit on single-cell status since April 11, 2013 after he was suspected of killing his cellmate.
He was currently in the early stages of the trial for that homicide.
2. Phillips Was Possibly Facing the Death Penalty in the Alleged Murder of His Former Cellmate
According to the incident report from the night of April 11, Phillips was the first person alert Kern Valley (Calif.) State Prison authorities that his cellmate, 37-year-old Damion Soward, was injured.
Correctional officers removed Phillips from the cell and tried to resuscitate Soward, but it was too late. According to USA Today, blood was found on Soward as well as several other items in the cell, including two T-shirts, pill bottles, a folder and a bag. The suspected cause of the death was strangulation.
On September 1, 2015 Phillips was charged with first-degree murder.
In November 2015, the judge in Phillips’ first-degree murder case granted a motion that allowed the Kern County District Attorney to consider the option of the death penalty. Phillips was eligible for 90 years to life when charges were first filed in August.
3. Phillips Reportedly Wrote a Letter to His Mother Saying He Thought His Anger May Lead to Murder
In September 2015, it was reported that Phillips wrote a letter to his mother saying he thought his anger may eventually lead to either his or someone else’s death. He wrote:
I feel myself very close to snapping. My anger grows daily as I have become fed up with prison. I feel my anger is near bursting and that will result in my death or the death of someone else. These people are obviously working against me with no regard to the law…will never let me leave prison alive.
The letter, which was dated March 5, 2015, more than a month before Phillips was accused of killing his cellmate, Damion Soward.
The former Rams standout also wrote letters to former coaches and mentors for months prior to Soward’s death, saying he had had conflicts with gang members in prison and had accepted solitary confinement as a means of trying to protect himself.
4. Phillips Was Serving a 31-Year Sentence for Assaulting a Former Girlfriend & Driving His Car Into Three Teenagers
In December 2009, Phillips, 34 at the time, was sentenced to at least 31 years in prison for attacking his girlfriend and then driving his car into a group of three teenagers. He was sentenced in San Diego, California, for assault and several other crimes.
The event occurred in 2005, and Phillips told the judge at the time that he didn’t get a fair trial and planned to appeal. He was convicted of domestic violence, false imprisonment and vehicle theft.
This, however, was not the first time Phillips had struggled with the law. In college, he was accused of bashing his then-girlfriend’s head into a mailbox and he also pleaded no contest to charges of trespassing and misdemeanor assault in 1995.
In 1997, Phillips was cut by his second NFL team after he pleaded no contest to misdemeanor batter for allegedly hitting a woman who refused to dance with him at a Florida club.
5. He Was Selected in the First Round of the 1996 NFL Draft
Phillips career on the gridiron got off to a promising start, beginning with a standout at Nebraska. He was then selected with the sixth overall pick in the first round of the 1996 draft, taken by the St. Louis Rams.
However, the promising start didn’t last long as Phillip’ off-field issues started to take their toll.
He was cut by the Rams after just one season, playing in 15 games and racking up four touchdowns on 632 yards. Then, he was picked up by the Miami Dolphins for two games, but managed to garner just 44 yards. Finally, after a stint away from the NFL, Phillips spent eight games on the San Francisco 49ers roster and scored two touchdowns with 144 total yards.