YORK — Onlookers came from just down the street and from the next state.
Some knew Julia Phillips and former York Mayor Melvin Roberts for years. Others had only read their names in newspapers.
For many, the investment was personal. For others, it was sheer intrigue.
On each of the eight days Phillips stood trial at the Moss Justice Center in York, while a jury listened to testimony and viewed evidence that would seal her fate, a throng of spectators packed the courtroom.
They squeezed in next to reporters and strangers. They listened to seven days of testimony from gunshot residue experts , longtime friends and employees – even an admitted thief, black-market plastic surgeon and confidential police informant.
On Thursday, they heard the jury return a guilty verdict, and Circuit Court Judge Derham Cole hand down a life sentence.
Phillips, 69, will spend the rest of her life as an inmate at the state Department of Corrections. She is currently at the Camille Griffin Graham Correctional Institution, one of two maximum-security prisons for women, in Columbia.
Throughout the trial, prosecutors argued her motive to slay her longtime boyfriend was rife with financial avarice.
Phillips’ attorney lambasted police for acting on pressure from Roberts’ family and the media to charge Phillips with murder despite what he called a lack of evidence.
Jurors weren’t convinced.
Neither was Patsy Carrigan, who for seven days soaked in every detail – from Phillips’ harrowing version of how she escaped from duct tape bindings to her lawyer’s claims that Phillips planned to celebrate her birthday drinking Mike’s Hard Lemonade in a silk, pink thong.
“It’s been very, very interesting,” Carrigan said.” It’s horrendous, but it affects so many, many lives.”
She never met Roberts and doesn’t know Phillips. All she ever heard about the convicted murderer is that she was “gorgeous” as a young woman.
Her sister, Linda Stinson, heard much the same.
The two retirees from Charlotte always loved watching trials. They say the criminal justice system is “fascinating.”
The self-described “avid newspaper readers” read true-crime stories. They’re fans of the “48 Hours” television show and the Investigation Discovery channel – what they call the “real stuff.” They despise dramatizations or re-enactments.
So, when Carrigan learned Phillips would be standing trial in York for murder, she asked her sister if she would like to go on an “outing.”
“Let’s do it on a whim,” Carrigan said to Stinson.
The plan was to go to the trial for only one day.
“After five minutes of being in the courtroom, we were locked,” Carrigan said. “We looked at each other and said, ‘Oh yeah, we’re coming back tomorrow.’”
They sat through hours of videotaped police interviews with Phillips. They heard painstaking testimony from State Law Enforcement Division agents, and lively testimony from Roberts’ friends and loved ones.
During breaks and recesses, they made “new friends.”
They met Lori Gaffney and Angela Shaheen, Phillips’ stepdaughters who had her evicted from their late father’s Gaffney home.
They met a man who knew Phillips for years, and a woman who went to school with her.
“It became so emotional,” Carrigan said.
For them, parts of it also became entertaining.
Testimony from Guy Blankenship, that colorful police confidential informant who swore that Phillips offered him $10,000 to kill Roberts, was their favorite.
Still, “I had to take him with a grain of salt,” Carrigan said.
Stinson thought differently: “He didn’t want to be here. What did he get out of it?”
After the verdict, the sisters returned to Charlotte. Family members don’t always understand their interest in crime or murder.
Stinson’s son once asked her why she doesn’t go to the Billy Graham Library instead.
Her reply: “Was there a murder there I didn’t know about?”
Made for TV
Ned Polk, a Rock Hill bail bondsman whose electronic monitoring company tracked Phillips while she was out on bond, sat in the courtroom through most of the trial.
His assessment: “This is the kind of stuff that ends up on TV.”
He met Roberts once or twice and had no personal dealings with Phillips except for tracking her every move and ensuring her ankle monitor was fully charged.
He said he was surprised by the trial’s outcome because he didn’t believe there was enough circumstantial evidence to prove Phillips’ involvement in Roberts’ death.
During the trial’s opening arguments, prosecutors openly said there was no “direct” evidence linking Phillips to the crime. Legal experts told The Herald before the trial that the case was mostly built on circumstantial evidence – the most difficult kind of case to prosecute.
“She may not have done it,” Polk said. “In her mind, she had been robbed.”
Phillips claimed to police that on the night of the murder she was attacked by a black, then a Hispanic man who bound her in duct tape and dragged her behind a brick wall. He demanded money, she told police, before hitting Roberts with a metal pipe and firing a gun.
Polk pointed to police testimony about Phillips’ phone records, which showed she had called her Gaffney home twice before calling police. She told police she had forgotten to dial 911.
“I know some people who, if they got upset, would forget” how to dial 911, he said.
Polk also doesn’t believe Phillips would stage a robbery, then forget to take any money.
After finding Roberts’ dead, police testified that they found his wallet in his back pocket, filled with money. They also found the bank bag Phillips said her attacker took. It too was filled with money.
But, the jury has spoken, Polk said, “and we’ve got to listen to them.”
Police have said Phillips worked with someone else to murder Roberts. In three years, that person’s identity has remained a mystery.
There for support
Each day during the first week of the trial, York lawyer Dan D’Agostino sat beside Melvin Roberts’ sons and other family as they listened to a “voluminous” amount of evidence and testimony.
Roberts, a lawyer in York for 55 years, was “a very important person in my life,” D’Agostino said. He started as Roberts’ law clerk in 1989, and they soon became law partners.
They tried many cases together, even after D’Agostino started his own practice: “I was with Melvin every day.”
His goal during the trial was to offer support to David and Ronnie Roberts.
“I’ve known them for a good part of my life,” he said.
He missed closing arguments on Thursday because of other obligations, but he arrived in the courtroom just in time to hear Phillips’ sentence.
Throughout the trial, D’Agostino watched the jury.
“As an attorney, you look and hope you have the jury’s attention,” he said. “The jury was engaged for the entire process.”
When Melvin Roberts would make closing arguments at trial, D’Agostino said, he would acknowledge how difficult it could be for 12 people to decide a person’s fate.
His appeal, D’Agostino said, was always the same: “All we ask you to do is render a verdict that speaks to truth.”
Jonathan McFadden • 803-329-4082