YORK — Saturday afternoon there were 365 people being held at in the York County jail awaiting hearings or a chance to get out on bond. The oldest men were two senior citizens, 65 years-old apiece, accused of shoplifting and criminal domestic violence.
Only one, the oldest of all 365 people, is older.
A woman named Julia Phillips.
Phillips’ listed age is 69 but she could be as old as 72, and she is in the middle of the most sensational trial in recent York County history.
Phillips was accused in a trial over the last week by an admitted criminal, professional informant and black-market plastic surgeon of trying to hire a hit man to kill her 79-year-old boyfriend, Melvin Roberts.
Pictures and video showed her swinging a purse at Herald reporter Jonathan McFadden as she entered the courthouse for the trial that will decide if she spends the rest of her life free or in prison.
Her lawyer said in her own trial that she is mentally incompetent, attention-starved, had a prescription narcotic painkiller problem that cost hundreds a month and can’t keep her story straight to save her life – yet all of that doesn’t prove she is a killer.
This past Monday through Friday, five days at the Moss Justice Center courthouse in York, the murder trial ran alleging that senior citizen Julia Phillips assisted in the February 2010 killing of her longtime lover Melvin Roberts. Roberts is the former mayor of York who practiced law for 55 years, defending accused killers in the same courtroom where prosecutors now are claiming Phillips assisted in killing him.
Phillips is accused of murder, not because authorities believe she strangled Roberts in order to get $150,000 worth of property from his will to keep her lifestyle afloat, but because she set up the crime. Then, prosecutors say, Phillips concocted a story about being attacked herself by an assassin – never caught – who beat Roberts over the head then strangled him.
Yet Phillips was barely wet or muddy, and had gunshot residue on her clothes, authorities say, despite repeated claims to police after the crime that she was held captive in the rain for half an hour and hadn’t fired a gun in years.
Phillips denies it all, and her lawyer has argued repeatedly that police botched the investigation and the admitted police informant shouldn’t be believed.
So far in a week, prosecutors have admitted that they do not have, and have not shown, any direct evidence against Phillips. She never confessed. There are no fingerprints of hers or DNA on any weapons.
Phillips did plead guilty in 2011 to stealing $2,000 from Roberts’ realty company around the time of the killing, but that was a different case in Gaffney and jurors will not be told about Phillips’ pleading guilty to that crime.
So prosecutors have hammered at Phillips’ motives.
The motives is clear, authorities have tried to show during five days: Phillips was going to be kicked out by Roberts, who had already stopped paying her bills.
She was broke, and desperate. Her bank balance for the three months before the killing was $1 or $2, testimony showed, and she owed thousands to creditors and banks.
As Roberts prepared to have her thrown out, she allegedly stole cash from her failing Gaffney clothing business that Roberts owned and had subsidized for years to buy narcotics in downtown Gaffney.
More, Phillips’ claims to police that she was attacked by a black or Hispanic robber who then killed Roberts are preposterous, prosecutors and police have said in court. Phillips claims in video interviews with police, and a re-enactment, are never consistent
Yet police have never charged anybody who actually strangled Roberts. Authorities admit it, in court the person who did the strangling has not been caught. Even with Phillips’ statements that are not consistent, and have been called “deceptive” and misleading” by prosecutors, police and prosecutors have been forced to admit that a killer remains on the loose.
Bobby Frederick, Phillips’ lawyer, has said the police botched the case by focusing on Phillips and not trying to find the two male killers who attacked Phillips, then strangled Roberts and fled.
Testimony this past week showed Roberts died gasping from breath on his back patio. He was garroted with a zip tie that was pulled so hard that his 16-inch neck was squeezed to 13 inches before he died.
The trial will resume Tuesday.
And the only people whose claims will matter in a few days are the dozen jurors who have to decide, unanimously, if Julia Phillips is an actress or a killer.
Andrew Dys • 803-329-4065 • firstname.lastname@example.org.