Melvin Roberts’ legacy is not just the horrific way he was strangled outside his York home in 2010. Nor is it the gripping 2013 murder trial and conviction of his longtime girlfriend.
Over more than five decades as an attorney, Roberts carved a path through the state’s courtrooms with his commitment to fairness and justice through a tough and relentless style.
It’s that lifetime of work that will be honored this week as South Carolina’s lawyers gather for their annual convention at Kiawah Island. Roberts, 79, is one of just 10 honorees set to receive the South Carolina Bar Association’s annual Memory Hold the Door award.
An endowment in Roberts’ name also will be established at the University of South Carolina School of Law, whose faculty established the honors in 1958.
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“A very small number of people are selected for this honor, and Melvin Roberts certainly is deserving,” said Circuit Court Judge Lee Alford of Rock Hill, who practiced with Roberts almost four decades ago before he was elected probate judge, Family Court judge and finally Circuit Court judge.
Alford will deliver the address on the life and legacy of Roberts that included the ability of people to disagree but not hold grudges.
The recognition is given yearly to lawyers who have died. Lawyers from around the state submit nominations citing nominees’ significant contributions to the state and its legal profession, said Leigh Thomas, communications director for the South Carolina Bar, which has more than 14,000 members.
Roberts’ family is humbled that his peers are recognizing him for his commitment to justice and a lifetime of hard work.
“This is really something special for the lawyers who worked with Dad, and knew of him and the way he practiced, to honor how he worked,” said David Roberts, one of Roberts’ two sons. “My father believed in justice and the justice system. He spent his whole life showing that system worked.”
Part of the Melvin Roberts lore is his own humble beginnings on a rural farm in McConnells southwest of York. After hitchhiking to college and working in a chicken plant and textile mill to pay for school, Roberts would go on to own and operate several businesses and become mayor of York.
He was a throwback to the glory days of lawyers, relying on his oratorical skills and courtroom style.
It was not uncommon for Roberts, a Korean War veteran, to argue a case in court in the morning, then put coveralls over his suit to do manual labor for one of his other businesses at lunch, then head back to court to close the deal with a jury.
Roberts’ legal practice included fighting for the disabled before the state Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court. At 79, Roberts had no plans to retire. Just a year before his death, he represented a York man in a murder case in which the jury found his client not guilty.
At the end of his life, the system that Roberts worked in for so long had to work to get justice for Roberts himself.
Julia Phillips, Roberts’ girlfriend who lived with him for a decade in York, was convicted of his murder last year. Police and prosecutors said Phillips hatched a plot to kill Roberts before he ended their relationship and cut her off financially. Phillips, 69, is serving a life sentence.
Police and prosecutors say she did not act alone in the killing, and York police say the case is still active. No other arrests have been made.
“This award from the state’s lawyers is a great honor for Dad,” said Ronnie Roberts, Roberts’ other son. “But when it comes to how he died, and the fact that there are others out there who were involved but haven’t been caught, we will not rest until justice is served.”
At least two cable television shows are planning documentaries on Roberts’ life and death.
But this week, for this honor, the focus will be on the life Roberts lived before he was hit over the head, shot and strangled with a zip tie. It was a life of representing people just like him who needed an advocate.
“That was Dad,” David Roberts said. “For him, all those people who came to him needed the very best he could offer – and he gave it every single time.”