YORK — The girlfriend of slain former York Mayor Melvin Roberts has been found mentally competent to stand trial on murder charges, prosecutors and police said Wednesday.
A trial against Julia Phillips could come as early as August, said Marcia Barker, spokeswoman for the Greenville County solicitor’s office, which is handling the case because of Roberts’ 55-year relationship with York County prosecutors and judges.
The competency determination was confirmed by York police, the primary investigating agency in a case that has involved the State Law Enforcement Division and other agencies, and has dragged on for more than three years.
“We hope to have some resolution in this case that has been going on for so long,” York Police Chief Andy Robinson said.
Roberts, 79, a lawyer for 55 years in York, was strangled outside his York home in February 2010.
Phillips, who lived with Roberts for a decade and initially told police she had been robbed that day, was charged with murder three months later. Police said her claims of being tied up and robbed by a black or Hispanic man were unfounded.
The motive for the killing was greed, as Roberts had planned to cut off all financial support, prosecutors have said.
Phillips, who is at least 68 years old but could be as old as 72, has been on house arrest in Gaffney since weeks after her arrest in May 2010. In 2011, she pleaded guilty to stealing from Roberts’ realty company and was sentenced to probation.
But the murder case has not moved forward since Phillips’ lawyer claimed in 2012 that Phillips was mentally incompetent to understand the charges against her or to assist in her own defense.
Circuit Court Judge Derham Cole of Spartanburg, assigned the case because of Roberts’ long-standing relationships with York County judges, ordered the state Department of Mental Health to test Phillips.
Prosecutors in Greenville were assigned the case because of Roberts’ relationships with York County prosecutors.
Robinson, the York police chief, said the investigation remains open, as police and prosecutors have said since Phillips was arrested that investigators do not believe she acted alone in the killing.
Phillips’ son, William Hunter Stephens, acknowledged in court documents last year that he was a suspect in the case and claimed he was only arrested on drug and fraud charges in Gaffney because police wanted to target him in the Roberts slaying.
In March, Stephens pleaded guilty to those fraud and drug charges and was sentenced to 12 years in prison.
Stephens has not been charged with any crime in connection with Roberts’ death. Prosecutors and police in court balked at Stephens’ claim that he had been arrested in other cases because of the Roberts homicide.
However, Robinson, the police chief, said Wednesday that Stephens “has not been ruled out” as a suspect in Roberts’ death.
Phillips’ lawyer, Bobby Frederick, who originally said in court in 2010 that Stephens was a suspect in the crime, could not be reached for comment. Frederick has claimed in court hearings that Phillips was too small and frail to have killed kill Roberts.
The ruling could set in motion a trial in a case that has twisted for more than three years.
Phillips was arrested, police said, after testing showed gunpowder residue on her clothes, that her clothes were not wet despite her claims to have been held outside on a rainy day, and that she had lied about being robbed.
Just days after her arrest, the Cherokee County coroner exhumed the body of Phillips’ ex-husband, Bryant Phillips, who died in 1999. Bryant Phillips’ daughter asked for an investigation of his death because her stepmother had just been charged with killing Roberts.
That investigation remains pending.
A probate judge later evicted both Stephens and Phillips from the Gaffney home where Julia Phillips was living. That eviction remains on hold because Judge Cole ruled Phillips has to live there on house arrest while waiting for the murder trial.
Andrew Dys • 803-329-4065