Julia Phillips guilty in Melvin Roberts' murder; sentenced to life in prison

jmcfadden@heraldonline.comSeptember 5, 2013 

— Julia Phillips will spend the rest of her life in prison after a jury Thursday night found her guilty of murder in the 2010 strangling of her boyfriend, former York Mayor Melvin Roberts.

After seven days of testimony from witnesses, experts, friends and even a black-market plastic surgeon, it took nearly four hours for the jury to decide that Phillips, 69, conspired with an unknown accomplice to kill Roberts, who had practiced law in York for 55 years.

Circuit Court Judge Derham Cole then sentenced Phillips to life in prison without parole.

In a brief address to the court, Phillips proclaimed her faith in God and her plans to keep Roberts’ family in her prayers. She did not admit to participating in Roberts’ murder, instead saying she hopes the real murderer is found.

Her attorney, Bobby Frederick, left the courtroom immediately after Phillips was sentenced and could not be reached for comment.

Roberts was 79 when police found him dead in his driveway on Feb. 4, 2010 – Phillips’ birthday. He had been strangled with a zip tie.

“My father’s gone,” Ronnie Roberts said after the jury verdict was announced. “He’s gone because of greed. These three-and-a-half years...it was so tough.”

After his father died, he said, only family members were allowed to view the body. Phillips was there, speaking to “my mother as if she was heartbroken. It burns me up...I just hope she never sees the light of day again.”

Although Phillips did not testify in her own defense, jurors told The Herald afterward that her words were her undoing. Over several days, prosecutors played hours of recorded police interviews with Phillips.

“It wasn’t one piece of evidence,” juror Craig Bennett said. “It was inconsistencies in her story. Her story did not follow the evidence.”

Juror Steven Morris, originally selected as an alternate until he took another juror’s place at deliberation, agreed.

“It’s the inconsistency of her story,” he said. “Her inconsistency with the facts...the duct tape.”

Phillips claimed to have been bound with duct tape by an attacker who threatened her or asked for money, depending on which story she told police in different interviews.

Detectives testified that the duct tape they found on her the night of the killing didn’t appear to have been wrapped tightly around her. She also described for police several events of the evening, despite having claimed that her eyes had been covered by the duct tape.

Phillips’ demeanor during several of her videotaped interviews – including a re-enactment during which she walked authorities through her version of the attack – were the most compelling pieces of evidence that influenced Bennett’s decision to vote guilty.

She did not act like someone who had just been through a “traumatic” experience, he said.

Testimony from Guy Blankenship – a confidential police informant, admitted thief and black-market plastic surgeon – that Phillips had offered him $10,000 to kill Roberts, bolstered the prosecution’s case, Bennett said.

“He was a bomb thrower,” Bennett said. “When he came in and said what he said, it kind of blew the roof off for a minute.”

That, Bennett said, despite the fact that prosecutors did not present any evidence to corroborate Blankenship’s assertions.

“If he didn’t go on the stand,” Bennett said, he still would have voted to convict Phillips.

Lead prosecutor Kris Hodge, an assistant solicitor with the 13th Circuit Solicitor’s Office, also pointed to evidence and testimony involving the duct tape as important.

“I am so pleased the jury came back...with the true, correct verdict,” Hodge said. “It was such a collaborative” collection of “various pieces of evidence.”

That evidence spotlighted the implausibility of Phillips’ story, she said, specifically the “duct tape job.”

The Solicitor’s Office in Greenville handled the case because prosecutors in York County recused themselves due to past associations with Roberts. York County judges also recused themselves from the case, leaving the case to be heard by Judge Cole of Spartanburg.

From the day of the killing, Phillips claimed she had been ambushed by a Hispanic attacker who demanded money as he wrapped her head, neck, wrists and ankles in duct tape and dragged her behind a brick wall some 60 feet away from the driveway of Roberts’ house in York.

That alleged assailant then hit Roberts over the head with a metal pipe before firing a single gunshot, Phillips told authorities.

Police determined quickly that her story about an attacker was a hoax. At least 12 statements she gave to police were inconsistent, presenting conflicting accounts of the night’s events.

While interviewing her, detectives noticed her clothes were not wet, though she claimed to have been pushed face-down in mud. The duct tape wrapped around her head, wrists, ankles and neck was loose, not tight. Police also found gunshot residue on her clothes, though she claimed not to have fired a gun in years.

Prosecutors said Phillips grew greedy and desperate when she realized Roberts planned to end their decade-long relationship.

He already had started cutting her off financially at a time when she had less than $2 in her checking account, owed creditors nearly $1,500, paid expansive out-of-pocket costs to support a prescription pill habit and became solely responsible for paying bills to a Gaffney store that Roberts owned but she managed.

Julia’s Inc. suffered a shortfall after Merle Norman, a cosmetics franchise, dissolved its relationship with Phillips. Testimony showed Roberts also paid all of Phillips’ utilities, health insurance and trips to beach houses and lawyer conventions. She stood to inherit $150,000 worth of property from Roberts’ will.

Throughout the trial, which started Aug. 26, Frederick maintained that his client could not be “consistent to save her own life.” She craves attention, he said, and she’s weird and awkward.

Frederick called six witnesses to the stand, including a private investigator who testified that he had found two additional suspects police did not consider.

He criticized the way police handled the investigation, alleging that authorities lied on sworn affidavits to charge Phillips in May 2010 because, acting on pressure from the media and Roberts’ family, they felt compelled to make an arrest.

“Police should never have charged Julia,” Frederick said during closing arguments Thursday. “They didn’t have enough evidence. The only reason they charged her is because this was Melvin Roberts.”

At the start of the trial, Hodge admitted to jurors that prosecutors had no “direct” evidence linking Phillips to the crime. She promised that they would see scientific and physical evidence, hear testimony from witnesses and experts and come to understand Phillips’ motive by the time they were ready to deliberate.

That evidence included testimony from Roberts’ longtime friends and former employees, who testified that his relationship with Phillips was on “rocky” ground shortly before his death.

Several police officers and State Law Enforcement Division agents testified about the lack of DNA on the duct tape used to bind Phillips and the zip tie used to kill Roberts. Others said Phillips changed her attacker’s physical and racial description several times, labeling her assailant at different times as black, Puerto Rican and Hispanic.

Frederick condemned prosecutors for relying on testimony from Blankenship, whom he called a “paid liar,” and building a case off gunshot residue, which he said could have landed on Phillips in a police car or at the police station.

On Thursday, Blankenship drove to York from Spartanburg County to watch the outcome of the trial. He stood by his testimony.

“It’s 100 percent true,” he said.

Former York Police Chief Bill Mobley, who spearheaded police efforts to investigate Roberts’ death three years ago, said “right now, it feels like I’m really starting my retirement.”

Police suspected Phillips as the likely culprit from the first night, Mobley said, when her story “didn’t make sense.” Certain details from the crime scene, like a golden gift bow that had been discarded outside near Roberts’ truck, were “crucial.”

Roberts’ family has “some closure,” he said. “Somebody’s still out there.”

Police believe Phillips worked with someone else to kill Roberts. The identity of that accomplice remains a mystery, and Phillips is the only person to have been charged in the murder.

Phillips, Mobley said, likely has the answer.

“She says she’s a Christian person,” he said. “She needs to confess her sins” and give the family full closure.

After Phillips was sentenced, Roberts’ older son said his family could finally move on.

“It’s more relief than anything,” David Roberts said. “It was the right verdict. If it had been not guilty, it would be a travesty.”

“We can move on with our lives; she won’t be in them.”

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