Experts: Phillips' guilty plea in theft case might aid prosecutors in murder trial

07/17/2011 12:00 AM

07/17/2011 2:25 AM

Julia Phillips - facing a murder charge for killing longtime boyfriend Melvin Roberts - pleaded guilty to stealing from Roberts before he was killed to keep from telling the world what her financial relationship was with the former York mayor, experts say.

But prosecutors now have a leg up on proving a motive for murder, those same experts agree.

One fact is clear: Phillips, 67, has a felony conviction on her record for stealing money from the same man she is accused of killing weeks later, allegedly over money.

She did not plead no contest and accept whatever sentence might come down. She did not plead guilty under an Alford plea, in which a defendant does not admit guilt but accepts there is enough evidence to support a guilty verdict.

She admitted to being a thief.

Legal experts say the chance of having Phillips testify in a courtroom for any reason - especially on a charge of stealing money from Roberts - was not worth the risk.

Prosecutors in the murder case claim Roberts was killed over money, so they might be able to gain something from Phillips defending herself against stealing $2,000 in rent.

Clearly, some experts say, prosecutors now have a motive established for the murder case.

The prosecutors from Greenville County handling the murder case - York County prosecutors left the case because of their relationships with Roberts - have declined say when it will come to trial.

Bobby Frederick, Phillips' lawyer from Myrtle Beach, has declined to talk about why she pleaded guilty to stealing the money, but has said in open court that Phillips did not kill Roberts.

Frederick also has talked in court of how police and prosecutors targeted others besides Phillips after the slaying, yet there has been no arrest of anyone but his small, frail client who Frederick said could not kill the much larger, stronger Roberts.

Late last month, Phillips pleaded guilty to felony breach of trust in Cherokee County for taking rent money from a Roberts' realty company in Gaffney. She pleaded guilty, did not have to testify, and only had to admit she took the money.

Because she had no criminal record - the murder case is an allegation at this point - Phillips received probation.

"The defense would have been fraught with risk, if she testified, that anything could come out," said Dick Harpootlian, a Columbia lawyer who has handled several murder cases as both a defense lawyer and prosecutor. "The defense had to make a tactical decision, and they probably made the right one."

There is almost no way to defend a breach of trust case, experts say, without having the defendant testify that the money was not stolen or that there was some other mix-up or other reasons - including a claim that the victim knew about the money.

The downside of Phillips' pleading guilty is obvious - she has a felony conviction of stealing money from the same person she allegedly killed, as that person was trying to extricate himself from the relationship.

It is almost certain that the conviction will be admitted to the murder trial as motive, some experts say, even if Phillips' lawyers try to keep it out.

Harpootlian, professor Miller Shealy of the Charleston School of Law, and professor Kenneth Gaines of the USC School of Law agree that the conviction is ammunition for prosecutors to use to show Phillips had motive to kill Roberts.

The murder of Roberts - a lawyer in York for five decades, a former mayor and larger-than-life character - in February 2010 outside his York home stunned the community.

Although Phillips told police that day she was robbed by an intruder at the house, investigators said three months later when she was arrested that her claims were lies.

"Pleas have consequences, especially with the same victim," Gaines said. "She admitted stealing from the same person she is charged with killing."

Prosecutors have alleged in court proceedings that Phillips talked about having Roberts killed for at least two years before he died, and that her money problems - created when Roberts stopped paying her bills - were clearly a motive for murder.

Phillips also was going to lose a Gaffney clothing store building that was in Roberts' will, prosecutors claim.

Now, the public record is clear: Phillips admitted she stole Roberts' money, as her money sources dried up.

Just weeks later, Roberts was strangled to death in the rain outside his house where Phillips also lived.

She claimed to police that she was robbed and tied up with duct tape. Police claim her clothes were not wet, the duct tape was a fraud, and although she supposedly hadn't shot a gun in years, she had gunshot residue on her clothes.

Roberts was strangled to death, but police say he also was hit over the head and a bullet was shot through his clothes' collar.

"The fact is that a motive has been established that she is a thief, and the victim is the same victim," said Shealy, the Charleston professor. "Even though there is this claim that there is another perpetrator in the murder case, so far uncaught, that is not that uncommon.

"But if she had testified in the breach of trust, there was a chance that a lot of bad facts could have come out. It is possible that she could have said something relevant to the murder case."

The experts interviewed also agree that while the plea to stealing the money was the only option for Phillips to keep from having to talk about her relationship with Roberts in court, prosecutors in the murder case ultimately benefit.

"This is an arrow in the quiver for prosecutors," Shealy said. "The defendant has a loss."

Julia Phillips remains under house arrest and $70,000 bond in the Gaffney home she once shared with her late husband, Bryant Phillips. He died in 1999.

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