After spending 9 years and 3 months behind bars for first-degree murder, a fellow inmate gave a deathbed confession, describing in detail how he was, in fact, the real murderer, and Miller and another falsely convicted man, Hardy Wiggins, were suddenly paroled and released.
One of Miller’s daughters, Louise Hale of Polk County, has self-published a new book, “13 Minutes To Live,” providing the actual court documents of a classic case of mistaken identity and the tragic impact it had on her father’s life in Graham County, N.C., and how it impacted her own life.
According to the records contained in the fact-based book, Phillip Phillips was shot in the back on Aug. 23, 1915, around 7:30 a.m. and died about 7 p.m. that same day.
The evidence is that Phillips left home at 7:20 a.m. that day, riding a mule down the road when he was shot in the back. The bullet entered about 2 inches to the right of the backbone and came out at the breast.
His son and daughter were on their way to milk a cow when they heard gunfire and heard their father call out quickly — twice. They, along with another man, found their father sitting with his back against a tree.
When asked what had happened, Phillips told them Hardy Wiggins or Merritt Miller had shot him. He said he saw them as he passed Hazel Branch, near a big chestnut log. When asked if he wanted a doctor, he said, “No. There is no use.”
At that same time Miller came up and Phillips said, “You are the man that shot me.” Miller denied this. Other people arrived and carried Phillips home on a stretcher where he died that evening. The judge admitted Phillips’ statements as “dying declarations.”
The record shows bloodhounds were brought from Tennessee, and after being put on the tracks, which had been carefully guarded, around the chestnut log, they followed the trail until they came to the home of Wiggins and marked him as he stood in the yard.
The transcript in the book said, “They then followed the track and met the deputy sheriff, who had Miller in custody, whereupon the dogs that were trailing the track ran up to Miller and marked him also.”
Hale’s book, co-written by her brother Howard Miller, covers everything from the trial, cross-examinations, verdict, Supreme Court appeal, the death-bed confession of the real murderer and the April 25, 1925, letter by North Carolina Gov. A.W. McLean, written to parole the innocent men.
In “13 Minutes To Live,” co-authors Miller and Hale do not paint their father as the perfect parent, or a saint. Before his death in 1955, at the age of 74, Merritt Miller was a notorious moonshiner and bootlegger both before and after his murder trial, according to the book. He fathered 26 children by four different wives.
Hale, 66, said she was not born when her father was falsely accused and served time for a crime he did not commit. He married her mother and started a new family after his earlier wife died of cancer.
Everything she learned was through court documents and firsthand accounts given by her mother and father after the ordeal was over.
“All he would talk about was that he didn’t do what he was accused of — killing this man,” Hale recalled. “He said he didn’t do it but they got him for it and were going to send him to the electric chair.”
Hale said her father was somewhat bitter after his run-in with the authorities and warned her she could not trust the government. Despite his flaws, Hale called her father “a very honest man who wanted us to be good children.”
In the book, Hale describes her family as poor — a family of 12 living in three bedrooms, four to each room in Erwin, near Johnson City.
“We went to school with brown paper bags filled with apple butter biscuits left over from breakfast. We had to walk about two or three miles down a mountain to catch the bus and when we got home we had chores till bedtime.”
According to Hale, she was only 10 years old when her father passed away. But it was upsetting to her as a child to know her father had been in prison for something he did not do, she said.
“I’ve been wanting to tell this story for the last 30 years,” Hale admits. “A lot of times I would discuss it with my husband. Then about 10 years later I started talking to my older sister about it. My mother had given me all the stuff she had on my daddy before she passed away.
“Then four months ago my husband told me if I wanted to do a book on it I should go for it. I just want people to know that there are innocent people out there getting wronged, too.”
Her book covers the murder case, her personal perspective, comments by other relatives and a family genealogy. Now that it is published, Hale confessed, it may not be grammatically perfect, but she is proud of the finished product.
“I think the story is there and I’m proud of getting it done,” she said. “In 2006 I got breast cancer. I had the most chemotherapy they could give me and 36 radiation treatments. The doctor told me they didn’t think I was going to make. But now I’m in remission. By the grace of the good Lord I’m still here. The book helped me get my mind off of what was happening.”
In her epilogue, Hale wrote, “In reading this book one would think what a good lawyer could do with the state of North Carolina or the very thought of having a dog finding you guilty. Or having someone name you a killer and never seeing you do the crime, after all he was shot in the back.”
In “13 Minutes To Live,” Hale offers readers a chance to stare a travesty of justice in the face, and review a case where truth seems stranger than fiction.
Copies of “13 Minutes To Live” can be purchased at the Museum Center at Five Points in Cleveland or by contacting Louise Hale at 423-338-6886.