Judge won’t bar solicitor in case against woman charged in former York mayor’s death

jmcfadden@heraldonline.comAugust 1, 2013 

Julia Phillips appears in court in Gaffney in this Herald file photo.

FILE, ANDY BURRISS — aburriss@heraldonline.com Buy Photo

The attorney defending Julia Phillips, accused of killing former York Mayor Melvin Roberts, says York County solicitors are still involved with prosecuting his client despite their recusal from the case three years ago.

Myrtle Beach lawyer Bobby Frederick told Circuit Court Judge J. Derham Cole that several emails exchanged between him and the Greenville County solicitor prosecuting the case also were sent to the 16th Circuit Solicitor’s Office, where York County prosecutors work.

Subpoenas, legal motions and other documents filed by the prosecution came from York County offices, Frederick said, and a York County assistant solicitor was present at the York Police Department the day he went to review evidence.

During a hearing Wednesday in which Cole decided that Phillips would remain on home detention despite multiple violations of her bond conditions, Frederick asked Cole to formally remove the York County prosecutors from the case.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate that they’re still prosecuting,” he said.

Kris Hodge, the Greenville County solicitor prosecuting Phillips, denied that York County solicitors have assisted in the case. She said she made use of the York County office’s support staff and an investigator, who helped her deliver subpoenas and access templates to file motions while in Greenville.

She also said she did not copy York County solicitors on emails – a secretary did.

Hodge said the way she understood it, Frederick and 16th Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett had a “gentlemen’s agreement” that Brackett would not make decisions about the prosecution.

Cole said Brackett sent him a letter, dated Oct. 29, 2010, in which Brackett said his office declined to prosecute the case but, “should (the prosecution) desire,” he would be available to assist them – but only at Hodge’s discretion.

Brackett recused his office from the case because he and Roberts, who had been a lawyer in York for 55 years, worked together since Brackett first became a prosecutor in 1991.

Though not close friends, Brackett said, he knew Roberts well and had once asked him to close a land deal.

Brackett recused himself, he said, “to avoid the appearance of impropriety or have anyone think or suppose that I was doing this out of any personal motivation.”

“The heart and soul of a recusal,” he said, is to keep a person who might be closely associated with any of the parties in the case from making key decisions, such as whether there is sufficient evidence to prosecute.

Prosecutors should be “independent and neutral,” Brackett said. “Tangential issues like filing a motion or serving a subpoena” do not violate those standards.

“There’s no sense in having (Hodge) drive from Greenville to file a motion,” Brackett said. “We can do stuff like that.”

When Frederick asked to review evidence at the police department, Brackett said, York police asked Brackett’s office to send an attorney in case issues arose, such as the defense requesting to see a sealed case report.

“They would have an attorney there they could ask” if such a situation came up and they were unsure of what to do, Brackett said. Police would have been referred to Hodge regarding major legal strategy.

To have his motion approved, Frederick would have had to show “that there was a threat of confidential information being improperly disclosed if (York County prosecutors) stayed in the case,” said Robert Wilcox, dean of the University of South Carolina School of Law.

Order vs. recusal

There’s a difference between the courts forcing a solicitor to leave a case and a solicitor recusing himself, Wilcox said.

“To force the removal of a prosecutor,” he said, “you would have to show (that) for the prosecutor to stay in the case would be some violation of ethical duty.”

Cole said Wednesday he found no issue with Hodge using York County personnel in an administrative capacity.

“They’ll continue to do that,” said Marcia Barker, spokeswoman for the Greenville County Solicitor’s Office.

Frederick declined to comment on Thursday.

Police charged Phillips with murder in 2010, three months after finding Roberts strangled to death in the driveway of the home he and Phillips shared. She was released from jail on a $75,000 bond and placed on home detention with electronic monitoring.

She is scheduled to go on trial Aug. 26.

Jonathan McFadden •  803-329-4082

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