Enquirer Herald

Slain attorney's connections bring unique challenges in York murder case

While Julia Bright Phillips sits behind bars, charged with murder in the slaying of her longtime boyfriend and prominent lawyer Melvin Roberts, area attorneys must decide who will prosecute and defend her.

Phillips, 66, first appeared in court late Tuesday at the Moss Justice Center before York city Judge William Moody, but officials aren't sure when her next hearing will be. She needs an attorney to ask for a bond hearing, and most area attorneys had at least a professional relationship with the man she's accused of killing.

Roberts spent 55 years in area courtrooms, working alongside defense attorneys, against prosecutors and arguing in front of Circuit Court judges. Many colleagues spoke out as being shocked and saddened by his killing - and now his alleged killer could be tried in the same courtrooms where Roberts worked.

But conflict of interest - in actuality or perception - could cause the 16th Circuit solicitor's or public defender's offices to hand the case off to someone else, but neither had made that decision public Wednesday.

Phillips was arrested Tuesday in Gaffney after police said her story about the Feb. 4 killing of Roberts didn't match the evidence. In a court hearing that evening, she asked for a public defender, according to the York County Clerk of Court Office. Only Circuit Court judges can set bond in murder cases, so Phillips has not yet had a bond hearing.

Solicitor Kevin Brackett of the 16th Circuit said a bond hearing won't happen until after Phillips has an attorney. Chief Public Defender Harry Dest, who was assigned to represent Phillips, declined to comment.

It's not just an attorney Phillips is waiting on. Brackett, who knew Roberts for 20 years, said he hasn't decided if his office will handle her prosecution.

"Everyone in the justice system here knew Melvin Roberts," Brackett said.

Before deciding to hand off the case to be prosecuted by another solicitor's office or the state's attorney general's office, Brackett said he will consult all the appropriate parties.

Waiting on this decision shouldn’t hold up the case, he said. Phillips’ initial court appearance is scheduled for late June and a preliminary hearing – if she wants one – will be after that.

It's fairly uncommon for another solicitor's office to take over a case, said Daniel Shearouse, clerk of court for the Supreme Court of South Carolina, but it does happen. Last month, the solicitor and defender's office for York County went to Lancaster County to handle a case involving arson to that county's courthouse and 6th Circuit solicitor's office.

David Hamilton, clerk of court for York County, said conflicts can arise from just about any party involved in a case, except the clerk's office.

"We are neutral," he said. "It doesn't matter if I know the victim or accused. Paperwork is paperwork. We clock it and file it."

Kenneth Gaines, professor of law at the University of South Carolina, said in situations where all sides know the victim it might best to avoid the appearance of conflict and change the venue - and have a prosecutor, defense attorney and judge from another circuit.

"The defendant and the victim are entitled to justice," Gaines said. "You don't want it to look like it was unfair to the defendant or the victim."

When there's the appearance of a conflict, he said, there's ample support under ethical rules to have another jurisdiction handle the case.

If the public defender's office chooses not to represent Phillips, Hamilton said, one of two things could happen: Another circuit defender could be called to represent Phillips, or a private attorney could be appointed.

But a Circuit Court judge would still be needed to preside over the case. Judge Lee Alford of the 16th Circuit worked as an associate with Roberts for almost six years during the 1970s right after Alford finished law school. Because of that, he could choose to recuse himself from handling any hearings related to the case.

York County has one other Circuit Court judge, John Hayes. If there are conflicts with both judges, Hamilton said, another Circuit Court judge could come to hear the case or the defendant could go to another county.