Experts: Prosecutors face ‘uphill climb’ in trial of woman accused of killing former York mayor

jmcfadden@heraldonline.comAugust 24, 2013 

— With no witnesses and a case built on circumstantial evidence pointing to one suspect, legal experts say, prosecutors will face a challenge this week when trying to convince a jury that Julia Phillips killed former York Mayor Melvin Roberts three years ago.

The Gaffney woman – who is either 68 or 71, according to conflicting court records – has claimed from day one that on Feb. 4, 2010, her birthday, a black man bound her with duct tape and stole her money.

That same intruder, who she later said was Hispanic, strangled the 79-year-old Roberts to death in the driveway of the York home they shared, she claimed.

Phillips’ story did not add up, investigators said, when they determined that no robbery had taken place, the duct tape had not been fastened tightly, her clothes had been dry on a rainy day, she had called her son twice before dialing 911, her story had changed several times, and she had tested positive for gunshot residue despite having claimed she hadn’t fired a gun in years.

Phillips was charged with murder three months later. She remains free on bond under house detention.

Police say the motive was money: Phillips stood to inherit property in Roberts’ will, but he had threatened to end their relationship and cut her off financially shortly before his death.

But much of that evidence is circumstantial, forcing prosecutors to provide as much detail as possible to the jury so there is no doubting Phillips’ guilt, said Dick Harpootlian, a Columbia trial attorney and former solicitor .

“Without any witness to the actual homicide, it’s a circumstantial evidence case, which is obviously more difficult,” Harpootlian said. “No one is saying, ‘I saw her do it,’ or, ‘She told me she did it.’”

“Those are tough cases,” he said, and all the defense has to do is raise reasonable doubt in the minds of the jury.

Without witnesses, both the defense and prosecution might put people on the stand who will testify if they noticed any strain in Roberts’ and Phillips’ relationship shortly before his death, said Miller Shealy, a former solicitor who teaches criminal law at the Charleston School of Law.

He agreed that the case will be hard to prosecute, particularly because the state faces the burden of explaining exactly how Roberts died.

Phillips’ attorney, Myrtle Beach lawyer Bobby Frederick, has argued in court that his client is too small and frail to have strangled Roberts. He has routinely declined to comment outside the courtroom.

“Strangling someone is hard to do,” Shealy said, unless the assailant has military or combat training. “That’s not an easy way to kill somebody.”

A hurdle for prosecutors, he said, will be proving that Phillips – who suffers from breast cancer, Frederick said in a recent court hearing – was strong enough to overpower Roberts and secure a noose around his neck while he probably struggled for his life.

Andrew Savage, a Charleston criminal defense attorney and a former prosecutor with the state Attorney General’s Office, said the defense might call on several medical experts to explain “the methodology of homicide by strangulation” and provide statistics on the amount of strength one would have to exert to strangle a victim.

“Strangulation isn’t the same as a gunshot,” he said. “I’d have a lot of trouble believing a frail woman would be able to subdue a conscious victim” with a plastic tie.

Shealy expects the state to depend on the financial motive police have established.

“She had the opportunity...she had motive...she had access (to Roberts) at the time of his death,” he said.

That won’t stop the defense from trying to poke holes in the police investigation, Harpootlian said.

Police have said someone helped Phillips kill Roberts, but they have made no other arrests in three years. Her son, William Hunter Stephens, was questioned but never charged.

A week before the trial, York Police Chief Andy Robinson said investigators still believe Phillips did not act alone, but he could not say why or how they draw that conclusion.

The investigation into Roberts’ death is “technically” still open, he said, although investigators have exhausted all leads and have not charged anyone else or identified other suspects since May 2010.

Regardless of the outcome of the trial, Robinson said, authorities will keep the murder investigation open and look for new leads.

“I don’t think it will be active, but...reactive, at this point,” he said.

That might create a roadblock for prosecutors, Shealy said, since there has been “three years of dead silence” about another suspect.

Savage called the absence of a second suspect a “pretty steep, uphill climb for the prosecution.”

The defense might argue that Phillips was unable to commit the murder because she’s elderly and frail. Then, the prosecution might contend that she “acted in concert” with someone else. That’s when the defense attorney “should be standing up objecting all day long,” Savage said.

“That’s just speculation” without proof, he said, and it will leave the jury with one main question: If Phillips didn’t strangle Roberts, who did?

There won’t be an answer.

Several months after her arrest, Phillips pleaded guilty to stealing $2,000 from Roberts’ real-estate business. She was sentenced to probation.

Her plea is fodder prosecutors can “definitely” use against Phillips if she takes the stand, Harpootlian said.

“The fact that she admitted in open court she took the money,” he said, won’t work in her favor.

But Shealy said it’s not uncommon for people who live together to take things from each other.

“Two thousand dollars is not a whole lot of money,” he said. “I don’t know what that really shows. It doesn’t make the case one way or the other.”

Savage said there’s a “huge difference” between stealing from Roberts and killing him.

“There’s a quantum leap between thievery and homicide,” he said.

The defense might object to prosecutors’ introducing those facts into the trial, Savage said, arguing that they’re irrelevant to the issues at hand. If the judge allows the evidence, defense lawyers can ask the judge to invoke a rule preventing the introduction of evidence that would prejudice the jury.

Harpootlian called Frederick’s silence good defense strategy, saying the defense “should wait to play their cards” in the courtroom.

Ronnie Roberts, the younger of Melvin Roberts’ two sons, said he’s eager to see “what possible defense her lawyer may have.”

“I want to see all the evidence in Dad’s case against Julia,” he said.

In the days leading to the trial, Ronnie Roberts said, he has been reflecting on lessons his father taught him: “How to cope” and “how to move forward.”

“Dad would always say leave it in the Lord’s hands,” he said. Melvin Roberts, a lawyer for 55 years, admitted that the judicial system might be slow, he said, but he called it “the best in the world.”

Older son David Roberts praised how police and prosecutors have investigated the homicide. While the road to trial has been long, he said, he has learned to be patient rather than frustrated.

“We have a lot of confidence in the judicial process,” he said. “Dad served the judicial system his whole career. We have to believe justice will prevail.”

Kris Hodge, the assistant solicitor prosecuting Phillips, was unable to comment for this story last week because she was preparing for the trial, said Marcia Barker, spokeswoman for the 13th Circuit Solicitor’s Office in Greenville.

That office is prosecuting the case because York County prosecutors recused themselves due to past ties with Roberts, who practiced law in York for 55 years.

Circuit Court Judge Derham Cole of Spartanburg is presiding over the case because of Roberts’ relationships with York County judges.

The trial is still “a go” for Monday at the Moss Justice Center in York, Barker said.

Jonathan McFadden •  803-329-4082

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