Untwisting the Upper Cumberland
Jasmine Woodson, 28
August 27, 2021
Notes from interviews with Jasmine Woodson
Grew up in Cookeville, Tenn., one of 11 children. Six siblings on her mom’s side, four on her dad’s. First met her dad and his family when she was 14. She lived with her mom and was the oldest child in that house.
Jasmine also lived in Columbia, Tenn., Memphis and Colorado before returning to Cookeville in March 2020.
Jasmine lives in Cookeville in an apartment with her daughter Jovi, 3.
Cookeville is a predominantly white town, and there remains a lot of racism there. Jasmine and her uncle, Phillip Mullins – who is in prison for murder – are Black. She says there were “a lot of really racist people in power” in the 1990s, and there’s still a lot of corruption involving race in her town.
Never having liked living in a small town, Jasmine left home at 18 and moved to Murfreesboro, Tenn., to be with her boyfriend who lived there. When they broke up, Jasmine stayed there because she loved the town. She went to cosmetology school and worked as a nail. She also had worked off and on as a stripper for 10 years.
She met the father of her 3-year-old daughter Jovi in Murfreesboro through mutual friends. Stayed with him for almost four years. Describes him as “really abusive” toward her but a great dad to their daughter.
“In June 2019, we left our apartment because we didn’t want to stay in Murfreesboro another year, but we didn’t find an apartment before our lease was up. So we ended up staying in hotels, and had to put all of our stuff in storage.”
The breaking point with her boyfriend was discovering that he had cheated on her. That night, she got in the car with her daughter and drove to Cookeville.
“At the time, Cookeville just overwhelmed me, and I didn’t like being there. It gave me a lot of anxiety to be there.”
Reasons: Brothers and sisters argue over petty stuff, she was aware of her mother’s financial troubles despite her mom’s attempts to hide it, etc.
“Being there made my nerves really bad, but I thought I could figure something out. I was staying mostly in my car, and we stayed with friends. And then my brother said, you should come to Memphis. I got to Memphis, but reality set in without having a job or babysitter. I was working as a nail tech, but the childcare situation just wasn’t in our favor.
She decided to give Cookeville another go. Found an apartment that seemed like it would work for her and Jovi but it wouldn’t be ready for a couple of months. They bided time in Murfreesboro, sleeping mostly in the Chevy Trailblazer she’d bought from a friend for $600.
They moved into the Cookeville apartment in March 2020, intending to stay a year to get back on her feet, help her family and figure out what would be next. She got a job working at a nail salon, signed a lease on March 13, and two days later, COVID-19 shut everything down.
“It’s been hard, but family wise, I felt I was supposed to come back to Cookeville. A lot has happened with my family since I’ve been back. I felt that it was good that I was here to help.”
Since her return, the hard things have included her 16-year-old brother (now 17) accidentally shooting a friend in May 2020, leaving the friend temporarily paralyzed and physically and mentally deeply traumatizing her brother. Jasmine helped him through it, driving him to school every morning, letting him stay with her. The two became close as result.
“Another brother caught a gun charge for a gun that wasn’t his, my youngest sister got pregnant. On top of that, my cousin and best friend here, Jade – we were like sisters – passed away on June 13, 2021. I am so glad I was here because I got to spend time with her almost every day. That made up a lot of lost time for 10 years I didn’t see her.”
Jasmine took a job as assistant state director for the BLEXIT Foundation, a Black conservative movement and nonprofit organization. She became somewhat of a local celebrity when she was invited to and attended a speech by President Trump at the White House in October 2020 – “When I came back, the whole town of Cookeville had me on billboards,” she says, laughing. She describes herself as a Libertarian.
She says that experience and getting involved with BLEXIT gave her a push to do more. And on New Year’s Day 2021, she sought some spiritual guidance on what she should do next.
“I prayed and told God that I want him to take control of my life. And whatever I’m supposed to do to for God’s will, I want to do that.”
In March, her Uncle Phil crossed her mind. Phillip Mullins, 61, is at South Central Correctional Facility in Clifton, Tenn., serving a life sentence for the August 1999 murder of 87-year-old Vernell Dixon. Jasmine believes Mullins is innocent and has been working on his behalf to get him freed.
Phil had previously spent 20 years of life in prison for rape of a white woman. Jasmine says it’s “common knowledge” that woman was Phil’s girlfriend and they lived together. He was charged with rape after the woman’s father found and reported him.
“The whole town knows he didn’t rape her. Even the woman. But she felt powerless when it came to her father.”
Phil Mullins is Jasmine’s cousin – his mother was her great-grandmother’s sister – but she has always referred to him as Uncle Phil. She was 6 the last time she saw him at a family barbecue, the day before he went to prison for Dixon’s murder.
Growing up, Jasmine says she remembers the Mullins name carrying a stigma around town.
“After Phil went to prison again, I remember a lot of people, saying, ‘That doesn’t make sense. Swack would never do that.’ Swack is his nickname. His nephews would be getting in trouble – they all have the Mullins last name. People thought the Mullins were scary, they couldn’t be trusted.
“In junior high and high school, I remember that sometimes people would talk about Phil’s nephew, Cory Mullins, his sister’s child, and say ‘those Mullins boys are crazy.’ They’d say it in front of me, not knowing that I was related to them because my name is Woodson. And I never said much. But as I got older, I’d become defensive over this because I knew his mother, Dorothy, and she was a great woman, who raised them as a single mom to the best of her ability. Phil was one of 13 kids, and they were poor, and they had it rough. Phil and his brother both have told me about times that the police would come to their house and just mess with them when they were kids, that they’d take them to the park and beat them up, and stuff like that. Just because they were poor black kids.”
Jasmine calls racism “way worse in his time,” and but that she certainly has felt it at times, starting with her first encounter with prejudice as a 5-year-old kindergartner.
“I had a little girl friend who said I couldn’t sit on her mat because her mom said I’d get black on it. “
Still, she says, “I’ve never been a pushover and I always got along with everybody.”
Jasmine says her family and friends have always believed Phil is innocent but that fear kept them from fighting to prove it. In a predominantly white town with a history of a corrupt legal system, their fears were justified, she says.
“Everybody was too afraid to fight the system here, out of fear of losing their jobs, or just being embarrassed or putting themselves in danger. The ones with the last name of Mullins are deathly afraid. After it happened, people hated the Mullins family. It was just awful. Everyone’s been afraid to do anything, and I’m not afraid. I just want to take a chance. Why not?”
Jasmine had been back in Cookeville for a year when she started looking into Phil’s case. She was struck by his many appeals, his always proclaiming his innocence, and his notes to judges saying he wanted to clear his name for his mother’s sake. His mother died in 2013. As Jasmine looked deeper, she couldn’t find any evidence connecting him to the Dixon murder scene.
“I wrote to him, put some money on his account, and the rest is history.”
After numerous conversations, she’s found him to be gentle, sweet, humble, earnest – and credible. So much so that Jasmine quit her nail tech job to free up time to take this on. She gets by with some odd jobs, doing Tarot readings and helping friends who have businesses.
“I’m kind of living on faith and prayer right now. After I started looking into it, I prayed again and I said God, if this man is innocent, I want you to make this easy for me, I want doors to open swiftly. If he is guilty, I want you stop me in my tracks and make this impossible for me to do. And it has gone so quick that it doesn’t even feel real.”
It took no time for her to make some significant headway after learning that Phil’s latest appeal – asking to be able to present DNA (because of a new law) – was denied. Via Facebook, in June 2021, she called out the judge who denied the appeal, saying he had denied it because Phil had pleaded guilty to Dixon’s murder when he never had.
“I posted it on FB, saying, hey, Judge Gary McKenzie, you said he plead guilty when he didn’t, and I hope you can fix this. This was on a Friday and his office was closed. Monday morning, I started calling his office and I was met by a really rude secretary, so I posted my experience with her online and I posted the judge’s number and I told everyone to call up there – all my Facebook friends. So they all called his office, and about four hours later, [on June 10], the judge called my phone and said, ‘Hi Ms. Woodson. I’m calling to let you know that I did make a mistake. I’m looking at his case right here and he never plead guilty. He was found guilty by a jury.’ He said he couldn’t promise me anything because he’s a sitting judge, but that he would be looking into the case. And about a week later, Phil got a letter in mail that he’d be getting a new date, an order granting a hearing and court-appointed lawyer.”
Jasmine has taken a step back from being so deeply involved with ongoing issues with her immediate family while working on Phil’s case.
“What I’m doing now is a lot different. I used to run at their (her family’s) every beck and call, I would spread myself too thin. So now I put myself first and I have to make sure I’m taking care of myself first before I run to everybody else’s rescue. Because that hurts me. Even thinking too deep on this stuff is hard. It’s all a lot. I’ve learned that I just need to step back and let them make their own mistakes if they’re going to make any. I tell them, I’ll be here if you need me, but make me a last resort.”
Her first priority is Jovi, a “rambunctious, very inquisitive” 3-year-old who “picks up on things fast. Usually, she knows how to go with the flow, and is very independent. Working on all this, sometimes it’s hard for me to just give her the attention she deserves, and the mom guilt sets in.”
Why is she so passionately convinced of Phil’s innocence?
“No. 1, there is no evidence linking him to the crime. He was acquitted for first degree murder because there wasn’t enough evidence. Phil also was charged with robbery, but there was a $2,300 found at the scene, $2,000 in a purse and about $300 in a wallet. Nothing was taken. Nothing was ransacked. They said Phil had her wedding ring, but it was on the victim’s finger” in crime-scene photos.
“I talked to the family of the murdered woman. There was evidence withheld from them. The family thought it was someone else. I think the prosecutor fabricated information. Phil went through a few public defenders and begged a judge for different counsel when one his lawyers told him he didn’t give a damn. I think witnesses were coerced. And I think Phil was charged in the first place because he was big, Black, sold crack and they couldn’t catch him.”
Jasmine says Phil has acknowledged his guilt for selling crack cocaine all along. “He said, ‘I made myself an easy target. I’ll do whatever, but I’m not a murderer.’ “
“He has maintained his innocence since day one. He never took a plea that would have let him out. He’s still fighting this. He has learned law, learned the language now. He writes so well now. I know he has cried till he can’t cry any more. I’m so glad he didn’t turn cynical. He also wants justice for the woman’s family. I hate that this is his life. It’s humiliating and embarrassing. I know he didn’t do it, and his story needs to be out there. I just want him out so bad. I hate that this is real and that he’s been in there for all of this time.”
Asked if she’s ever doubted his story and sincerity, her answer was an emphatic “no.”
Who she’s sought help from:
· “The Undisclosed” podcast, which has a team of lawyers that could help Phil’s court-appointed attorney
· The NAACP, which sent her some resources but otherwise was unhelpful and “left a sour taste” in her mouth.
· The Innocence Project, which never returned her calls.