Henry A. Barrios

Ex-NFL football player Lawrence Phillips during his arraignment in September.

A Kern County judge found there is enough evidence to hold ex-NFL player Lawrence Phillips for trial on a charge of first-degree murder with a special circumstance of lying in wait after prosecutors argued he strangled his sleeping, defenseless cellmate in April of last year.

Phillips, 40, faces the death penalty if a jury convicts him of the murder of Damion Dewayne Soward and finds the special circumstance to be true.

Deputy District Attorney Andi Bridges presented testimony at Tuesday’s preliminary hearing from a number of law enforcement officers, two of whom handled previous incidents where Phillips was alleged to have choked someone. In those cases, two women in incidents in 2000 and 2005 reported Phillips choked and threatened to kill them, the officers testified.

San Diego police Detective John Smith said the victim in the 2005 assault reported Phillips told her, “Do you want to die? I should just murder you.”

Bridges said Phillips’ prior assaults show a method to his attacks, and he learned from them.

“We have a man who has a fairly extensive history of strangulation,” she told Judge Michael E. Dellostritto.

Phillips, the prosecutor said, was tired of prison staff continually trying to place him with a cellmate. He had refused cellmates numerous times from 2005 to 2014, those refusals sometimes resulting in disciplinary action. 

When Kern Valley State Prison officers again tried to place him with a cellmate in April of last year, he finally agreed. Bridges said reports indicate Phillips shook Soward’s hand and even helped him move into his cell.

But Bridges said Phillips was concealing his true intention: He planned to kill Soward. She said a letter to his mother was later found in his cell in which he wrote he had a new cellmate and it wasn’t going to work out.

“This nonsense is part of prison,” Bridges said Phillips wrote. “I may have to give them what they want.”

The letter indicates Phillips was fed up with being given a cellmate and was going to take action, the prosecutor said.

“(Phillips) was done playing this game with CDCR,” she said. 

Phillips waited until the early morning of April 11, when the 37-year-old Soward was asleep and no officers were around, and applied a bar-arm chokehold around Soward’s neck, Bridges said. Soward was unable to fight back or free himself.

Officers found Soward unresponsive on the cell floor. He died 40 hours later.

Phillips was charged with murder Aug. 31 in Soward’s death.

Jesse Whitten, Phillips’ attorney, said his client acted in self-defense in applying the chokehold, which he described as a hold commonly used to restrain someone. He said there is no evidence that shows Phillips was the aggressor.

A former first-round NFL draft pick, Phillips played for the St. Louis Rams, Miami Dolphins and San Francisco 49ers following stellar football play at Nebraska. He never lived up to his potential, and soon became known more for legal run-ins than athletic prowess.

Phillips is currently serving a sentence of 31 years and four months for separate convictions of running down three teens following a pickup football game in 2005, and choking his girlfriend.

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