SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - A former National Football League running back serving time in a California prison for domestic violence and vehicle theft has been charged with first-degree murder in the strangling death of his cellmate, a prosecutor said on Wednesday.
If convicted, Lawrence Phillips, 40, could be sentenced to an additional term of 25 years to life, but he will not face the death penalty, according to Andrea Bridges, a deputy Kern County district attorney.
His arraignment has been set for Sept. 15, Bridges said.
Phillips, a two-time college football national champion at the University of Nebraska who became a running back for the San Francisco 49ers, was named four months ago as a suspect in the killing of 37-year-old Damion Soward.
Soward, serving 82 years to life for murder, was found unconscious in the cell the two shared at Kern Valley State Prison on April 11 and died the next day. A coroner later ruled his death a homicide by strangulation.
Bridges said she could not discuss the circumstances of the killing, and no such details were provided in the criminal complaint filed against Phillips on Monday.
Bridges declined to say whether Phillips claimed self-defense, adding: “Had our investigation found evidence of true self-defense, that would have been an excusable homicide, and we wouldn’t have filed charges.”
Phillips entered prison in 2008 to serve a term of 31 years and four months for injuring his spouse, false imprisonment and vehicle theft, prison officials said. Media reports at the time said he had choked his girlfriend and in once case left her unconscious.
The former NFL player, who would have been eligible for parole in 2034, was placed in a separate housing unit pending the outcome of the murder investigation, prison officials said.
Phillips played for three NFL teams over four years in the 1990s, ending his career with San Francisco in 1999.
Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Susan Heavey