York riot killing called an ambush

Lawyer for 3 defendants tell jurors that shooting was motivated by fear

October 02, 2002|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

YORK, Pa. - Prosecutors describe it as an ambush - a deliberate attack by more than 100 frenzied white young men who riddled a white Cadillac with bullets simply because its occupants were black.

To defense attorneys, it was a tragic and bizarre coincidence that Lillie Belle Allen and her family drove up North Newberry Street at the very moment that residents were anticipating the return of armed black men who had driven to the neighborhood in a white Cadillac three times in three days and shot at or threatened residents.

The conflicting interpretations of events from July 21, 1969, form the crux of the murder trial that opened yesterday of former Mayor Charlie Robertson and two other men charged in the death of Allen, the 27-year-old daughter of a Baptist preacher from Aiken, S.C.

Robertson, 68, a police officer at the time, is accused of supplying ammunition to gang members and encouraging them to "kill as many niggers" as they could. Robert N. Messersmith, 53, former leader of a local gang, is accused of firing the shotgun blast that knocked Allen out of her sneakers and killed her. Gregory H. Neff, 54, is charged with shooting at Allen's vehicle.

Investigators reopened the long-dormant case in December 1999 after local newspapers published articles marking the 30th anniversary of race riots that gripped York for 10 days and resulted in the fatal shootings of Allen and a white rookie police officer. The articles prompted witnesses to contact investigators with new leads.

Attorneys for both sides tried to set the scene in court yesterday for 12 white jurors, most of whom have no recollection of the riots, during which entire blocks burned, police barricaded black neighborhoods and enforced curfews, 60 people were injured and 100 were arrested.

"They had set up an ambush in order to kill anyone who came into their neighborhood," prosecutor Thomas H. Kelley told the jury yesterday in his opening statement, adding that white gang members were "lying in wait" for "a specific type of person - African-Americans."

"Back then, they were called Negroes," Kelley said. "And back then, on Newberry Street, they were called niggers. When that car went down Newberry Street, ... they were proceeding into an ambush - an ambush forged in racism, maintained by hate and fueled by malice with a specific intent to kill."

Defense attorneys countered that the killing was not about racism at all. Rather, they said, the young men on Newberry Street were motivated by fear.

They feared snipers with guns so powerful that a rookie police officer wearing a bulletproof vest in an armored vehicle had been mortally wounded, defense attorneys said. They feared shootings and fire-bombings that had overwhelmed York's 96-member police force and left officers encouraging white residents to protect themselves. And they feared the Cadillac in which black men had sprayed bystanders with gunfire from the trunk and threatened to return.

"That neighborhood was on heightened alert," said Harry Ness, Neff's lawyer. "Everyone in that neighborhood expected one thing - for that Cadillac to return. ... You, as jurors, have to see this Cadillac coming up the street from the eyes of the people on that street."

Jurors also heard about the shooting from the opposing perspective - that of Hattie Mosley Dickson, Allen's younger sister, who was behind the wheel when she drove her family through the heavily armed neighborhood on the way to a grocery store.

Dickson was attempting to turn the car around and avoid men with guns when the crowd started shooting.

"They opened fire on us and I couldn't get no further," she said. "I was afraid. I felt that I was looking death in the face."

When the shooting quieted, Dickson testified, Allen got out of the car to help Dickson and was shot in the chest.

Defense attorney Ness seized on Dickson's description yesterday, asking whether she recalled testifying last summer at a preliminary hearing that the shooting started only after Allen got out of the car.

Ness also asked her to read a statement she signed when two detectives interviewed her July 22, 1969, pointing out inconsistencies in her recollections from then, a year ago and yesterday.

Dickson testified that she didn't remember speaking to police in 1969.

In an interview, Ness said that different witness descriptions of the shooting should cast doubt in jurors' minds.

"If we can't get the same story from everyone," he said, "then there has to be some question about what happened."

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