A judge has ruled prosecutors can move forward in the murder case against Julia Phillips, accused of the February strangling death of former York Mayor Melvin Roberts, the York County Clerk of Court said Friday.
Phillips, 66, was charged in May with killing longtime York lawyer Roberts, her boyfriend, after she originally claimed she was the victim of an attempted robbery when Roberts was killed outside his York home.
The probable cause ruling was signed Friday by Circuit Court Judge Derham Cole of Spartanburg and sent to York through first class mail, said David Hamilton, York County's clerk of court. Hamilton said he spoke to a clerk in Cole's office who confirmed Cole's ruling. Cole has been assigned the case because of potential conflicts of interest among York County judges who knew Roberts.
The ruling means prosecutors can present the case against Phillips to a grand jury and seek an indictment, which is required before the case can be brought to trial.
The case will be prosecuted by 13th Circuit Solicitor Bob Ariail of Greenville because Phillips' lawyer asked that 16th Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett, the prosecutor for York and Union counties, be removed from the case because Brackett also knew Roberts for almost 20 years.
Efforts to reach Ariail for comment were unsuccessful.
The ruling "is good news, and we are ready to go forward," said York Police Chief Bill Mobley.
Cole's ruling comes almost two months after a hearing was held to determine whether police had probable cause to arrest Phillips.
Phillips' lawyer, Bobby Frederick of Myrtle Beach, said he's not surprised by the ruling, which is common after a preliminary hearing.
"Probable cause is a very low standard of proof" that "doesn't require very much evidence at all," he said. "When the jury hears the evidence in the case, there's going to be DNA evidence that proves she (Julia Phillips) is innocent."
In previous hearings, Frederick has said Phillips, listed as age 66, was too weak, too small and too frail to commit the murder.
In that October hearing, York police testified Phillips talked to an informant about having Roberts killed two years ago, then again a few weeks before Roberts was killed. Roberts broke up with Phillips - his girlfriend since around 2000 - in 2006 after he found out she was stealing from him, police testified in October.
After Phillips was arrested on the murder charge, she was arrested and later indicted for breach of trust in Cherokee County, relating to allegations she stole rent money from an apartment Roberts owned.
Roberts stopped paying Phillips' debts as early as late 2008 and threatened to end the relationship again after a reconciliation, according to court testimony in previous hearings.
Prosecutors and police have said money could be a motive for the killing. Phillips stood to inherit the building owned by Roberts in Gaffney where she had a clothing business, prosecutors say.
In the February attack, Roberts was hit in the head and shot at - but not struck by a bullet. He died from strangulation from a zip-tie around his neck.
Police have said in court hearings investigators suspected Phillips' story about a robbery and being tied with duct tape was a hoax from the beginning. They charged her with murder after forensic evidence showed she was not wet despite rainy weather, no money was stolen and she had gunshot residue on her clothes. Investigators also suspect Phillips did not act alone in the killing, but no one else has been charged.
Phillips remains under house arrest in Gaffney while out on bond. Her two stepdaughters - the daughters of Phillips' late husband, Bryant Phillips - have sued to evict her.
After Roberts' death, the Cherokee County coroner exhumed the body of Bryant Phillips, who died in 1999, but tests are pending.