What the Julia Phillips’ jury didn’t hear

Herald columnistSeptember 4, 2013 

— Julia Phillips said in court Wednesday, as her murder trial in the brutal strangling of her boyfriend neared a close, that she has put her future not in the hands of the court, but in God’s hands.

But none of the 12 jurors who have sat through a week of accusations and will decide her future appeared to be deities.

And only the judge was wearing a flowing robe.

Those guarding the courtroom doors and the jail cell where Phillips has stayed at night for a week were constables and bailiffs. St. Peter was nowhere to be found.

Phillips, at 69 the oldest murder defendant in York County, did not say she had no faith in the court in front of the jury. She only told that to the judge. She did not testify.

“I’ve been up since about 4 o’clock this morning praying,” she told the judge outside the presence of the jury, “and I believe in all of my interests, it’s the best thing to do not to say anything.”

The judge asked her if she had any questions for him. She had none, but volunteered this analysis of a week of trial and three years standing accused of murder:

“I think I distrust everything. Like I say, I grew up a Christian. I am a Christian. My confidence is in God, not the court.”

And she said nothing else.

During more than a week of trial, jurors never heard a word in person from Phillips, accused of being part of the killing her longtime boyfriend, former York Mayor Melvin Roberts.

They did hear allegations from cops and prosecutors that she was a calculating part of a murder-for-hire plot to get money.

Jurors also heard her lawyer claim Phillips was a victim of a crime who later was run roughshod over by a legal system that wrongly accused her. Worse, Phillips and her lawyer say, the cops never caught the actual killer.

Phillips is not accused of the actual strangling, but of being part of it. The man who stood on Roberts 79-year-old throat and pulled a zip tie tight to kill him has never been identified, much less caught.

Phillips has the right not to testify, even after having denied killing Roberts for more than 42 months and blaming instead a black or Hispanic man.

Jurors heard plenty from her, though, through police videotape and detectives’ testimony.

They related her tales of allegedly having been attacked and dragged through mud and rain by the uncaught attacker, as Roberts was strangled. They shared her stories of how she got away and what happened to her that night, first saying she didn’t see the assailant with the Hispanic accent, then saying he had curly hair and dreadlocks.

She claimed the attacker wanted money, but nothing was stolen.

Police testified there was almost no mud or wetness on her clothes or the car she sat in for an hour afterward, despite her claims of having been bound by duct tape and held outside on a rainy night for at least 30 minutes.

The jury heard how Phillips’ account of the events of that night changed a dozen times.

Her lawyer, Bobby Frederick, said a week ago – outside the presence of the jury – that Phillips had no idea what was going on and should be declared incompetent to stand trial. He said she was starved for attention and could not keep a story straight to save her life.

But that doesn’t make her a killer, Frederick argued.

Nobody in that courtroom expected her to take the stand under oath, either. Phillips would have opened herself up to admitting that she had been convicted two years ago of stealing $2,000 in rent money from Roberts’ realty company.

Prosecutors were not allowed to bring that up against Phillips as evidence of murder, but they could have if she had testified.

That, and a lot more.

So many of the stories Phillips had told to so many people already had been submitted as evidence. She allegedly tried to hire an assassin, according to a paid snitch in Gaffney who said he turned down $10,000 from Phillips to kill Roberts.

She gave police 12 rambling denials of involvement and what happened Feb. 4, 2010.

Phillips has been alleged both by prosecutors and her own attorney to have had a narcotic prescription pill problem that was fed by both legal and illegal means.

There was another guy who mentioned God after court Wednesday who didn’t testify, either. His name is Dennis Rayfield, a Vietnam combat veteran who knows more than a little about guns and killing.

He was Melvin Roberts’ best friend. He was on the witness list for the trial, but he was never called. He was there the whole time but never asked anything.

Rayfield was with Roberts most of the day of Feb. 4, 2010, before Roberts went home and was strangled. Rayfield went with Roberts, a lawyer for 55 years who also owned a car lot and had rental property, to a car auction and brought back vehicles.

“It was a great day,” Rayfield said Wednesday about that day three and half years ago.

Rayfield said he was ready to testify that Roberts had told him two weeks before his death – and again on Feb. 4, 2010 – that he planned to cut off Phillips financially and tell her to move out that night.

“He said he had enough of Julia’s drugs, lies, stealing from him,” Rayfield said in the hallway outside the courtroom. “And he said he was going to kick her out and send her back to Gaffney.”

Rayfield described Roberts, who could be loud and gruff, as generous, too. Roberts gave to poor clients for five decades after growing up so poor that he worked his way through college in the 1950s working in a chicken plant.

“Melvin always said he was going to be a defense lawyer and stand up for poor people,” Rayfield said. “And that’s what he did.”

Roberts might have vowed to himself to help others, but he did not take any vows of poverty. His legal and business interests made him a bunch of money over five decades, and he owned a lot of property.

For 10 years, Phillips got tens of thousands of those dollars and lived with Roberts at his home in York. Roberts financed her business and paid the bills. In his will, she was set to receive a $150,000 building in Gaffney.

But Roberts had said enough was enough, testimony showed even without Dennis Rayfield, and he was no longer paying any of Phillips’ bills, which totaled at least $60,000 over the years.

Rayfield said he “thanks God” he was able to spend part of that last day of Roberts’ life with him, when he was smiling and happy.

On Thursday, closing arguments will include all kinds of accusations of murder and strangling and murder-for-hire plots, coupled with gunshot residue on Phillips’ clothes from prosecutors.

Jurors will likely hear claims from Phillips’ lawyer of inept police work and gunshot residue testing that is inconclusive at best. He will almost certainly say the snitch who claimed Phillips sought an assassin to kill Roberts is an admitted criminal who performs black-market plastic surgery and that he is not to be believed.

Then the jury will decide.

And no matter what verdict they return, the awful word to describe Melvin Roberts – father, former mayor, lawyer for the downtrodden – will still be “dead.”

God cannot bring Melvin Roberts back.

And only a jury, not God, will decide as early as Thursday what justice is.

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

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