Ex-mayor of York declines to testify as trial in '69 killing draws to close

Evidence on fatal gunshot inconclusive, expert says

October 16, 2002|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

YORK, Pa. - For nine days, Charlie Robertson sat silently through his murder trial as witnesses told jurors that he had offered bullets and encouragement in July 1969 to young, white gang members now accused in the race-riot killing of a black minister's daughter.

He watched as his attorneys called fellow police officers to refute those accusations. And, as he sat wordlessly, a parade of local politicians, businessmen and longtime York residents streamed into court to attest to his reputation as a law-abiding citizen.

The famously chatty former mayor and retired police officer - whose comments on the charges against him and the racial strife of the 1960s have sometimes dismayed his lawyers - has even kept quiet each day as television cameras and reporters surround him and his attorneys before and after court.

That silence was broken briefly yesterday when Robertson declined to take the witness stand and told York County Judge John C. Uhler that on the advice of attorneys, he was waiving his right to testify.

"I'm willing to testify," Robertson told the judge.

Uhler interrupted, "But has anyone forced you not to testify?"

"No, sir," Robertson replied.

Calling the last of 25 witnesses, Robertson's attorneys wrapped up their case yesterday - the 10th day of the murder trial of Robertson, 68, and two other white men charged in the shooting death of Lillie Belle Allen, 27, of Aiken, S.C. Visiting with relatives in York, she was gunned down at a railroad crossing July 21, 1969, after her family strayed into a white neighborhood during 11 days of racial violence.

Robert N. Messersmith, 53, is accused of firing the fatal shotgun slug. Gregory H. Neff, 54, is accused of firing three times at her car. Investigators returned to the long-dormant case in December 1999 after local newspapers published a series of articles marking the 30th anniversary of the riots and witnesses came forward with new information.

Outside the courthouse, Robertson's attorney, William C. Costopoulos, told reporters that his client had reluctantly surrendered his right to testify.

"They haven't proven anything," Costopoulos said of prosecutors' case against Robertson. "That's their burden, so I'll leave it alone. ... Just to put him up there for no reason other than to have everyone examine him, there was no reason to do it."

Alluding to Robertson's willingness to share his side of the story with journalists, Costopoulos added: "He wants to talk. I shut him down, and it's making him crazy."

Robertson chuckled and winked.

Prosecutors tried to use two such interviews against Robertson last week as part of their case.

They showed jurors a tape of a Fox News segment from May 18, 2001 - a day after Robertson was arrested and three days after he narrowly won the primary election for a third term as mayor. He dropped out of the race a week later.

In the television interview, Robertson claimed to have played a heroic role in Allen's shooting.

"When that black lady was shot, I was the first one to get them to stop shooting and to save the other people's lives in that car," he said. "I'm the guy that saved lives, and we're not hearing much about that."

Robertson was one of the first officers on the scene, arriving in an armored police vehicle with three fellow patrolmen. Two of them testified that Robertson approached the railroad tracks after the shooting stopped, identified himself and told the mob of armed men on the street not to shoot.

Prosecutors also tried to show jurors an article from Time magazine in which Robertson was quoted as saying, "Everyone knew who was involved. But everyone just thought it was even. One black had been killed and one white - even." But the judge upheld Costopoulos' objection that the quotes could not be used without providing the context of the questions the reporter had asked.

Attorneys for Messersmith called three witnesses yesterday, including a Pittsburgh forensic pathologist internationally known for his work on the cases of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the death of Elvis Presley, and who has consulted on the killings of JonBenet Ramsey and Nicole Brown Simpson.

Dr. Cyril Wecht testified yesterday that a rifled shotgun slug probably - but not conclusively - killed Allen, and that he could not say positively whether the shooter had used a large-caliber handgun, a rifle or one of several shotguns of different gauge.

Attorneys for Messersmith and Neff are expected to wrap up their cases today before jurors take a field trip to several sites in York that have been pivotal in witness testimony.

After attorneys' closing arguments and instructions from the judge, jurors could begin deliberations tomorrow evening.

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