York County’s only senior citizen murder defendant made quite a splash in court Monday as her trial got underway.
Julia Phillips, at least 68 but maybe as old as 72, arrived in court in high-wedged heels, gold necklaces and a ruffled white jacket, with an amber amulet swinging from her neck.
A wardrobe made complete by a stylish electronic monitoring bracelet around her ankle.
Then her lawyer, Bobby Frederick of Myrtle Beach, told a packed courtroom that his client has no clue that she faces a trial for her life.
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That shocking claim came after Phillips, accused of killing former York Mayor Melvin Roberts, with whom she had lived for a decade, arrived at Moss Justice Center early Monday in a late model Lexus, driven by another woman.
At stake is whether Phillips will live out her life in a prison as a convicted killer.
The allegation is simple: Police and prosecutors claim Phillips killed Roberts for money, either strangling the tough old lawyer herself or having someone else do it for her.
So into the courthouse Phillips went, the first defendant in the building an hour and a half before her trial was scheduled to start. Her heels made a noise on the sidewalk.
“Why, I’m not into all this,” Phillips told reporters and photographers as she made her way to the courthouse door, mumbling under her breath about not knowing where to go.
This lady, at least 68 years old, was in the right place – the courthouse where she gets her fair chance in front of a jury of her peers.
Once upstairs in the courtroom, Phillips sat by herself.
Across the aisle Roberts’ family – sons Ronnie and David; sisters Patricia and Faye – found seats.
Then came Lori Gaffney, Phillips’ stepdaughter, who – after Phillips was charged with Roberts’ murder in 2010 – asked that her late father’s body be exhumed to see how he died.
Phillips sat through the sentencing of an illegal immigrant to five years in prison for possession of 19 pounds of marijuana.
Then it was her case at issue. She sat without saying a word as a state mental health psychiatrist testified that she was competent to stand trial.
Phillips had spent 15 days in a hospital under observation during a mental evaluation, the psychiatrist said, and is currently taking several medications, including Valium and painkillers. She has pre-dementia and cognitive deficits but is competent, the doctor stated.
After that, hours were filled mostly with Circuit Court Judge Derham Cole qualifying jurors, then Frederick and prosecutors picking a jury.
Phillips said almost nothing throughout all of it.
At a break around 2:30 p.m., Frederick told her to go with someone to get some lunch. Phillips stood, looking around, and the same woman who brought her to court said, “C’mon Julia.”
Phillips followed at a slow, deliberate walk. She tottered again on the shoes. The ankle monitor clung to her leg. She made it out to the parking lot after several minutes.
When she came back after lunch, the show really got going good.
Prosecutor Kris Hodge stated that the alleged motive in the case is greed. Roberts was going to cut off all the money for Phillips’ drugs and bills, so Phillips and an uncaught accomplice had him killed.
Frederick objected to the money motive, saying the “$200, I think,” that Phillips had in her purse when Roberts was killed was not stolen.
“Three,” Phillips piped up, meaning $300 she had that cold wet night in 2010.
Then there was the issue of the 12 statements Phillips gave police after the Feb. 4, 2010, killing but before her arrest three months later – statements claiming she had been robbed and attacked and tied up.
Phillips apparently would not stop talking back in 2010, after blaming a black intruder – and later a Hispanic assailant – for the alleged robbery and Roberts’ death.
The police said the statements were voluntary. The prosecutor said the statements were voluntary. Even Phillips’ own lawyer said the statements were voluntary.
Phillips on Monday afternoon – more than three years after making the statements – said no way.
When Judge Cole asked if she had anything to say, she replied: “There’s a lot of things that I would like to say sometime.”
Cole then asked her if the statements she gave back then were freely and voluntarily and intelligently given.
“I will intelligently and voluntarily tell you that he (a police officer) called me back and said, ‘You better get your family ready,’” Phillips said of a March 2010 police interview, her 11th or 12th statement to police.
Phillips, after all the mental testing and even her own lawyer saying she freely talked to the cops, now is claiming that her statements were coerced.
Cole called a quick recess for Phillips and her lawyer to get their story straight.
Back in session, Phillips tried to interrupt Frederick. She tugged at his sleeve. As several police officers testified that the statements were voluntary, she raised her hand to talk, as if she were in the third grade.
Frederick then told Cole that, despite the psychiatrist testifying just hours before that Phillips was competent, his client has “fluid” competency.
“Judge, she is not competent,” Frederick said.
“I’ve got an expert who said here today she is competent,” Cole shot back.
Julia Phillips, on trial for her life, broke in: “Can I ask him one thing?” she asked loudly.
It is unclear what will happen Tuesday.
Frederick said he wanted another doctor to see if Phillips is incompetent. Many in the courtroom sat in shock, wondering if she was putting on an act.
When Cole asked the lawyers if Phillips had been compliant with the terms of her bond, she took the liberty of answering for herself.
“I’m compliant,” she said.
The judge asked the lawyers if the battery in Phillips’ ankle monitor was working.
“Yes, sir,” Phillips piped up instead.
Frederick appeared exasperated as Phillips poked his arm to try to get him to let her talk.
“Julia, let me answer,” he finally said to her.
In the end, Cole decided that, since the ankle monitor’s battery was dead, Phillips had to wait in jail until it was charged.
Phillips looked around as female bailiffs led her off to a holding cell.
Finally, apparently, she stopped talking.