7-woman, 5-man jury chosen in Julia Phillips murder trial

jmcfadden@heraldonline.comAugust 26, 2013 

  • The players Here’s a quick look at who’s who in the murder trial that starts today in York:

    Victim – Melvin Roberts, former York mayor, lawyer for 55 years

    Defendant – Julia Phillips, longtime girlfriend of Melvin Roberts

    Judge – Circuit Court Judge Derham Cole of Spartanburg. He was appointed because Roberts knew York County judges.

    Prosecutor – Kris Hodge, assistant solicitor in the 13th Circuit Solicitor’s Office in Greenville. Greenville was given the case because Roberts knew York County prosecutors.

    Defense lawyer – Bobby Frederick, Myrtle Beach criminal defense attorney

    Police expected to testify – Retired York Police Chief Bill Mobley, lead Detective Billy Mumaw of the York Police Department, state and local police and forensic examiners

    Location – Moss Justice Center, York

— A jury of seven women and five men will decide the fate of Julia Phillips, the woman accused of killing former York Mayor Melvin Roberts and whose lawyer argued again on Monday that she is not mentally capable of standing trial.

During the opening day in the murder trial against the Gaffney woman, a pool of 96 potential jurors assembled at the Moss Justice Center in York. By noon, that number had dwindled to 84 after Circuit Court Judge Derham Cole dismissed 12 of them – four who were solely responsible for caring for their young children and eight others due to personal, extenuating circumstances.

After jury selection, 12 jurors – three of them black and nine of them white – were chosen to serve during the trial. Three alternates – two white men and a white woman – also were selected.

Before the jury’s selection, Phillips’ lawyer, Bobby Frederick of Myrtle Beach, filed a last-minute request to bring in jurors from outside York County for her trial. Frederick said he filed the motion mostly because of pre-trial media coverage.

Cole, a Spartanburg judge presiding over the case because York County judges recused themselves because of their associations with Roberts, rejected Frederick’s motion, as well as the defense attorney’s requests to disqualify two members of the jury.

One, he said, acknowledged that she volunteers with the 16th Circuit Solicitor’s Office’s juvenile arbitration team. Another juror’s mother once worked alongside Roberts.

Cole said he did not anticipate any problems with them serving objectively.

Frederick said he was pleased with the jury and expects a fair outcome.

“It’s a good jury,” he said. “They seem like good people.”

Phillips arrived at court at 8 a.m.

Roberts, 79, who practiced law in York County for 55 years, was strangled in the driveway of his York home in February 2010. Phillips, who lived with Roberts for about 10 years, was arrested and charged with murder in May 2010.

Phillips – who is either 68 or 72, according to conflicting court documents – told police that she had been bound and robbed on the day of the killing.

Detectives said her story was a hoax, citing gunshot residue on her clothes despite Phillips telling authorities she had not fired a weapon in weeks.

Phillips also claimed to have been attacked outdoors by an unidentified black or Hispanic man, yet police said her clothes were not wet and no money was missing.

Prosecutors later said Phillips’ motive for the crime was money, as Roberts had planned to end the relationship and all financial support for Phillips and her clothing business in Gaffney.

Phillips has pleaded guilty to a felony charge of stealing $2,000 in rent money from Roberts’ realty company around the same time as the killing.

Investigators say police do not believe Phillips worked alone in the killing, but no one else has been charged.

Phillips has said she did not kill Roberts, and her lawyer has said she was too small and too frail to have done it. She has been held on house arrest bond since shortly after her arrest.

After an hour recess, Cole heard several pre-trial motions, most of which were made by Frederick.

He requested that Cole bar prosecutors from using Phillips’ guilty plea to breach of trust in 2011 during the trial unless she were to take the stand. He said those facts would prejudice the jury and only serve to tarnish her character, not provide “motive for the murder.”

Kris Hodge, the Greenville County solicitor prosecuting Phillips, said she did not intend to introduce that evidence in trial, but she does plan to discuss Phillips’ “quite expensive” prescription pill habit that she paid for with Roberts’ money.

Phillips was prescribed hydrocodone and valium, her lawyer said, adding that such evidence would debase her character and not provide motive.

But Hodge argued that prosecutors plan to use money as Phillips’ primary motive for killing Roberts or having him killed. Roberts had already started to cut Phillips off financially as their relationship soured. She stood to inherit property from Roberts.

Cole instructed Hodge to not mention anything about Phillips’ alleged thefts in Hodge’s opening arguments to the jury.

After Frederick asked that allegations made by witnesses that Roberts claimed Phillips took his credit card and wallet several years ago, Hodge said, “In a nutshell ... this defendant killed Mr. Roberts for money. Period.”

“She knew it was over,” said Hodge, claiming that witnesses have told her Phillips and Roberts’ relationship cycled with moments of bitterness but eventual reconciliation.

But in February 2010, Roberts told witnesses it was the final straw and he planned to tell Phillips to pack her bags on Feb. 4, her birthday.

“She saw the writing on the wall” and knew “she needed to get while the getting was good ... before he had time to remove her from his will,” Hodge said. Roberts was Phillips’ “only way to finance her highly expensive lifestyle and pill habit.”

Cole denied several subsequent motions, including Frederick’s requests to suppress “hearsay” statements made by witnesses who spoke with Roberts before his death, and a request to sequester witnesses who will go on the stand for fear they might tailor their testimony to what other witnesses will say.

Hodge told Cole she plans to introduce at least 15 statements Phillips gave to police in the days and weeks after Roberts was found dead.

“The statements were coerced and involuntarily made,” Frederick argued to the judge before meeting with Phillips for several minutes. “None of the statements are voluntary and she does not understand what you’re asking.”

Several York police officers, detectives and a former agent with the State Law Enforcement Division testified that Phillips voluntarily gave statements – some of them lengthy, several of them videotaped – when they questioned her. She was not under arrest at any time during those interviews with authorities.

Still, Frederick said Phillips was unable to understand Monday’s proceedings, despite a state Department of Mental Health psychiatrist testifying earlier in the day that she was competent to stand trial.

Cole told Frederick that if he could find an expert who could once again gauge Phillips’ competency, he would listen. Dr. Richard Frierson, the psychiatrist who testified early Monday, could not be reached in the afternoon as he prepared to board a flight to France.

“We anticipated she would come up with something based on her previous performances,” said Ronnie Roberts, the youngest of Melvin Roberts’ two sons, about the latest set of claims questioning Phillips’ competency.

Frederick also could not reach Phillips’ bondsman to determine if she would be allowed to go home each night until the verdict. She was taken into custody at the York County Detention Center until her electronic monitoring agency could recharge her ankle monitor.

Court resumes at 9:30 this morning.

Watch for updates throughout the trial at heraldonline.com on Facebook and via Twitter @JmcfaddenHerald.

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