Mental tests planned for woman accused of killing ex-York mayor

Herald columnistAugust 22, 2012 

— A judge has ordered the woman accused of strangling former York Mayor Melvin Roberts to undergo a mental evaluation after her lawyer claimed she is incompetent to stand trial, court documents show.

The challenge of Julia Phillips’ mental competency is the latest twist in a case that has gone on for more than two years.

Police and prosecutors have painted Phillips, Roberts’ live-in girlfriend for a decade, as a master manipulator.

They claim she talked with people about having Roberts killed before his death in February 2010 and had financial motives for murder after Roberts planned to cut off paying Phillips’ mounting bills.

Further, police have said Phillips’ claim that she was tied up in a robbery attempt as Roberts was strangled nearby in his driveway was not true.

Just last summer, Phillips pleaded guilty to felony breach of trust for stealing $2,000 in rent money from Roberts’ real estate company before he was killed.

It remains unclear when Phillips will be tested by the state Department of Mental Health, prosecutors said Wednesday.

Phillips – unemployed since her arrest after having run a clothing store in Gaffney in a building owned by Roberts that she stood to inherit after he died – has been on house arrest in Gaffney for more than two years. She was freed on $75,000 bond following her arrest.

Testing could take months, further delaying a court date – unless Phillips is found incompetent.

The order requiring mental testing is the first time Phillips’ mental competency has been questioned since she was charged in May 2010, said Marcia Barker, spokeswoman for the 13th Circuit Solicitor’s Office.

Prosecutors from Greenville and a judge from Spartanburg were assigned to the case because Roberts – a lawyer in York for more than 50 years – had long-standing relationships with York County prosecutors and judges.

Phillips’ lawyer didn’t question her competence last summer when she pleaded guilty to breach of trust and was sentenced to probation and a suspended sentence of five years.

In April, state officials ordered Phillips to pay restitution for failing to pay probation costs and fines following her guilty plea.

Phillips claimed financial hardship as the reason she could not pay on time, but mental competency was not an issue, said Pete O’Boyle, a spokesman for the state Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services.

Phillips’ mental state was not brought up in previous bond hearings or probable cause hearings, either.

The mental evaluation has not been completed, Barker said Wednesday, although the order was signed more than two months ago.

Prosecutors declined comment about Phillips’ competency to stand trial.

The order requiring the Mental Health officials to examine Phillips details no specific concerns about Phillips’ mental state.

But Circuit Court Judge Derham Cole wrote that, after discussing the issue with Phillips’ lawyer, Bobby Frederick of Myrtle Beach, he has “reason to believe defendant may lack the competency to understand the criminal proceedings or to assist with the defense as a result of a lack of mental competence.”

Frederick could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

If Phillips were to be found incompetent, she would likely have to undergo medical treatment and be tested again to see if competency changes, said Kenneth W. Gaines, a professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law.

Incompetency does not mean Phillips would escape the charge, Gaines said. If Phillips were not able to stand trial, he said, the courts almost certainly would order continued treatment and could order Phillips institutionalized.

Some defendants deemed incompetent can be found competent to face court proceedings after treatment, Gaines said.

For example, Gaines said, earlier this month – following a year of psychiatric treatment – Jared Loughner pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life in prison for the shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others In Arizona.

“The lawyer in the Phillips case, whatever he saw in his client, had an obligation to ask the judge to order this evaluation,” Gaines said. “The lawyer must have seen something that was enough for the judge to order the evaluation.”

If Phillips is found competent, prosecutors can move forward with a trial, Gaines said.

Frederick has said in court that Phillips is not guilty, saying she was too small and frail to strangle Roberts.

The investigation is still open, said Barker and Lt. Rich Caddell of the York Police Department.

“We continue to follow leads and re-interview people in this case,” Caddell said Wednesday, declining to say who police had talked to again.

After Roberts’ death, Phillips’ stepdaughters successfully sued to have her evicted from the house she inherited from her late husband, Bryant Phillips, who died in 1999.

The judge’s order of house arrest has kept her in the Gaffney home.

Bryant Phillips’ daughters also asked that his body be exhumed and tested for a cause of death.

Results of those tests are pending, said Cherokee County Coroner Dennis Fowler.

Andrew Dys 803-329-4065 adys@heraldonline.com

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