MARTINEZ -- A prison gang leader already facing a second trial on murder, attempted murder and conspiracy charges after a jury deadlocked in May has been charged with nine new counts, alleging he tried to burn to death a fellow inmate, intimidate a witness and collect a trove of weapons -- all while he waited in a Contra Costa County jail for his trial.
Prosecutors on Aug. 27 charged 39-year-old Coby Phillips with attempted murder, arson, dissuading a witness by force, and three weapon possession and manufacturing counts. Each of the charges could be a third strike against him, his attorney Dan Horowitz said.
"It reflects more on the failure of the original charges to stick, and they're grasping at everything to get something to stick," said Horowitz, referring to the complicated case that started with a 2008 indictment following a lengthy investigation.
Phillips has been in prison since 2005, when he was arrested on federal drug charges. Contra Costa prosecutors claim he killed a man in Crockett and another man was shot in Richmond to further his gang's drug business.
Prosecutor Tom Kensok said the new charges speak for themselves and declined further comment.
The most serious new charge dates back to December 2010, while Phillips was housed in the Martinez jail's D-module, the primary unit for isolation of dangerous or targeted inmates.
Phillips lit the end of a makeshift rod formed by rolled up inmate request slips and placed it underneath the door of a sleeping 46-year-old inmate in the next door cell, torching the man's blanket, according to police reports. The inmate was not injured, but identified Phillips -- the only inmate out of his cell at the time -- as the arsonist, according to the reports.
Horowitz said the inmate was breaking the rules by smoking in bed and used Phillips as a scapegoat.
Prosecutors say Phillips also dissuaded a witness, a fellow inmate, and charged him with sharpening shanks, crude prison made knives, and hiding them inside his cell in August 2010 and April 2012.
Horowitz said he plans to subpoena records of all staff and inmate stabbings and beatings to show how jail is "not a humane place." The attorney said Phillips had to protect himself with weapons, especially after another jail gang had allegedly ordered a hit on Phillips.
"It's a place that society has created, and if they start charging people for everything they do in prison ... they will be prosecuting people forever," Horowitz said. "To say that a man can't protect himself is wrong."
Phillips' next court hearing is Nov. 13.
Contact Matthias Gafni at 925-952-5026. Follow him at Twitter.com/mgafni.