Former York mayor died a gruesome death, struggling for breath

Herald columnistAugust 27, 2013 

Melvin Roberts' sons Ronnie, left, and David, right, in the courtroom at the Moss Justice Center Monday.

ANDY BURRISS — aburriss@heraldonline.com

— David Roberts, oldest son of the dead man, hung his head and closed his eyes. He could not bear to watch.

In the same row of the courtroom, his brother, Ronnie, stared at the projection screen. Tears ran from under his glasses.

At the defense table, murder defendant Julia Phillips’ shoulders shook. Her lawyer put a hand on her shoulder and told her not to look. She stared straight ahead, or clenched her eyes shut tight.

Most importantly, the jurors sat transfixed, staring at the screen of death.

They stared past the exact spot Melvin Roberts had stood and argued a hundred cases in five decades as a defense lawyer, trying to send his client home free instead of to jail.

On that screen at 5:13 p.m. Tuesday – during the last testimony of a brutal day of accusations and denials, claims of murder driven by greed leveled by prosecutors and of uncaught black or Hispanic assailants by Phillips’ lawyer – were autopsy photos that showed how Roberts died.

The autopsy pathologist, Dr. Robert Thomas, said it plainly: Roberts died from “asphyxiation and strangling.”

The killing weapon was a zip tie, a standard gray plastic strip that is used to hold together bundles of steel or hard plastic. The zip tie was pulled so tight that it left marks that resembled railroad tracks on Roberts’ neck.

David Roberts rubbed his face and stared downward. Ronnie Roberts wiped away tears. The decade-long girlfriend of Melvin Roberts stared straight ahead or closed her eyes and did not look.

Phillips is accused of being an accomplice to the killing, part of the killing herself. Prosecutors have not accused her of actually doing the strangling of a man weighing 100 pounds heavier more than she, but planning it and being part of it.

No one else has been charged in Roberts’ slaying.

Roberts – former York mayor, lawyer, business owner – had come home that night of Feb. 4, 2010, the birthday of his girlfriend, after buying cars for his car lot and a stop at the liquor store.

He got out of his Chevy Suburban in the dark and cold and rain. He died fighting for breath, the zip tie pulled so tightly that his 16-inch circumference neck was squeezed to 13 inches.

That’s how hard somebody pulled on that zip tie – so that it dug three inches into his neck.

Dr. Thomas, the pathologist, laid it out as simply as he could as the jury stared.

Roberts was hit twice in the head, incapacitating him, Thomas said is most likely what happened.

“A blunt object,” the doctor testified. “Very strong force.”

One blow smashed Roberts on the back of the head, the other on the left side. That one was so hard, Roberts’ brain bled.

Roberts was on his hands and knees, or face down most likely, the doctor said, when somebody held a gun to his neck. The gun went off, and Roberts’ knee was scraped.

He was hit with something so heavy and hard that it caused cuts and bruising so deep – likely a gun or a baseball bat or a pipe, the doctor said.

There were bullet holes in Roberts’ shirt collar and sport jacket collar.

“The gun was to keep him compliant,” the doctor testified.

David Roberts did not look up. Ronnie Roberts watched it all. Julia Phillips did not. The jury watched everything.

Whoever pulled the zip tie kept a foot kept on Roberts’ neck and shoulder to use extra force, the doctor said.

“Foot traction,” the doctor said to the silent courtroom.

The second and last tug on the zip tie killed Roberts, Thomas said. Roberts had been turned over by his assailant. The zip tie was pulled so hard it cut off blood to and from the brain and crushed his windpipe.

The zip tie, held together in a circle by the doctor, had been pulled so tight that the diameter was no larger than large can of Progresso soup.

“The decedent would have struggled to survive,” Thomas said.

All this on a man who, at age 79, still had the neck of a bull.

The defense lawyer claims that two assailants, either Hispanic or black, first attacked Phillips, then killed Roberts after casing his home and business and fled into the night through a back woods.

But those are just arguments. The evidence projected on the courtroom wall, the pictures of Roberts’ neck, showed evil and hate and violence.

Jurors heard the words “body” and “morgue” and “cooler” where the body was kept for autopsy.

That body just 18 hours before that autopsy was a living, breathing man fighting for his life.

A man who grew up poor and became a success for more than 50 years, yet at the end of his life, for a decade, had a girlfriend.

A girlfriend who could not look at the dead man’s neck up on the screen as she sits on trial for murder.

Andrew Dys •  803-329-4065 •  adys@heraldonline.com

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