Jeff Phillips, left, and his late husband, Joey Paul

A declaration of Dallas couple’s informal marriage may allow release of evidence to help solve a murder

DAVID TAFFET | Senior Staff Writer

More than three years after the murder of his husband Joey Paul, Jeff Phillips can finally inherit his portion of Paul’s estate, and he can finally get information from Dallas police about the investigation that had been previously withheld from him — and all because of a court ruling in Dallas County.

The couple had been together for 15 years at the time of Paul’s death, but they were not formally married. Still, probate Judge Brenda Hull Thompson declared Phillips’ claim of common law, or informal marriage as it’s known in Texas, to be valid.

And now that declaration of informal marriage could mean the difference between solving a cold case or never identifying Joey Paul’s killer. Phillips said there’s a video of the murder that Paul’s family blocked from being released. But now Phillip’s has the right to call for its release.

Paul was shot and killed on Elmwood Boulevard in Oak Cliff on May 19, 2016, less than a year after the Obergefell marriage equality decision. He and Phillips had been together for 15 years and had talked about getting married but hadn’t gotten around to it.

To qualify for informal marriage status, Phillips had to show evidence that he and Paul had presented themselves as a married couple. As part of his proof, Phillips showed that he and Paul had purchased a house together in 2003 and that they had lived together and acted as a committed couple. He provided a stack of evidence about a foot high that included cards they sent to one another over the years, photographs and employee benefit forms that had named the other other as beneficiary.

In addition, two witnesses — former Fort Worth City Councilman Joel Burns and his husband JD Angle — signed and submitted sworn affidavits that said Paul and Phillips presented themselves as a married couple.

Attorney Brian Hill represented Phillips in the case, and he referred to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Obergefell marriage equality decision in arguing for common law recognition.

“Although their marriage date preceded the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell on June 26, 2015,” he said, “the well-established doctrine regarding the retroactivity of decisions on constitutional issues is clear and requires that Texas Courts recognize the validity of informal same-sex marriages, even those that existed before the Obergefell ruling.”

Hill said it was important to determine when the informal marriage began for the purpose of determining what property the two men acquired as a couple. So even though the Obergefell ruling didn’t happen until 2015, the court recognized the marriage retroactively to 2003.

The ruling also affects Phillips’ ability to collect any Social Security benefits due him as a legal spouse and to receive crime victim funds.

Even though this ruling is not the first of its kind in Texas, Hill said this case is important because it showed you can have a common law marriage declared posthumously, although the level of proof is higher than just showing they lived together, since one of the spouses isn’t there to testify.

Most importantly though, Hill added, “Now Jeff can be involved in the homicide investigation and be informed about the status of the case by Dallas Police, a right which is typically reserved only for legally-recognized members of the victim’s family and the surviving spouse in particular.”

Phillips said not being recognized as the spouse included other indignities. Paul’s family claimed his body from the Medical Examiner’s Office and refused to let him see his husband’s body before he was cremated. They also excluded any mention of Phillips in his husband’s obituary.

Phillips and Paul had had wills drawn up just before Paul was murdered, but Paul hadn’t finalized his or signed it. He had, however, signed a will several years before the couple met when his family started a business.

The will specified all property would revert to the family. Although she transmitted the original will to the Court,  she never filed her own application to probate the will even though she had knowledge of the proceeding.

For Phillips, Judge Thompson’s declaration of informal marriage was vindication. “It was special to get the declaration,” he said. “The court said we were married.”

While this isn’t the first case of a posthumous declaration of common law marriage, it is the first involving a homicide.

Lambda Legal attorney Shelly Skeen said the case is “one more example of Texas courts following Obergefell. What applies to opposite-sex couples applies to same-sex couples.”

While Skeen wasn’t worried about Dallas judges following the law, she said, it was important for there to be precedent for smaller, rural counties that rarely handle cases involving same-sex couples. She said that precedent would be set in Texas’ largest cities, because this is one of just a few states that recognize common law or informal marriage.

Skeen said one thing the case demonstrates is how important wills still are. Marriage, she said, confers certain rights and benefits, but property acquired before marriage could still be challenged. A spouse could also be forced to prove in court that other property was acquired during marriage, and that could be difficult in some cases, expensive to defend and not something someone who just lost a spouse should be put through.

For Phillips, the ruling is important because it may now lead to a break in his husband’s murder.

The couple had been renovating their house, and the night he died, the dust from the remodel was causing Paul’s asthma to act up. While Phillips was away, Paul left on foot to spend the night elsewhere. But somewhere on Elmwood Boulevard near Rugged Drive, less than a mile from their house, tragedy struck. Neighbors at the time told police they heard men arguing in the street, then a gunshot.

But what wasn’t made public at the time was the fact that one of the nearby houses had a security camera, and that camera caught the murder on video. The license plate of the car that the assailant escaped in is blurry

in the video and isn’t legible. But still, Phillips believes that if the video had been made public at the time, someone might have recognized the killer or the vehicle and been able to give police the lead necessary to solve his husband’s murder.

When then-LGBT police liaison officer Laura Martin read the file in 2016, she told Phillips she had never seen anything like it, Phillips recalled: Paul’s family refused to let the video be released, and their refusal tied detectives’ hands.

Now, though, the decision is in Phillips’ hands, and he is already completing the paperwork necessary to get the video released publicly. Police have said that could take months, he said. But still, Phillips remains hopeful that the blurry video footage that has remained hidden away for more than four years now holds the key to the heart-breaking mystery of who killed Joey Paul. And he hopes that once it is made public, someone out there will turn that key, and his husband will finally be able to truly rest in peace.