Jurors tour sites from testimony on 1969 killing in York

Closing arguments set for this morning

October 17, 2002|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

YORK, Pa. - With testimony complete and closing arguments scheduled for this morning, jurors weighing murder charges against former Mayor Charlie Robertson and two other white men visited several sites yesterday afternoon that have played key roles in testimony about the 1969 race-riot killing of a black minister's daughter.

In a soaking rain and surrounded by a swarm of sheriff's deputies and reporters, jurors walked across the railroad tracks where Lille Belle Allen, 27, was gunned down at dusk after her family strayed into a hostile white neighborhood during 11 days of racial violence.

They saw the intersection where Robertson, then a police patrolman, is alleged to have given white gang members bullets and told them to "kill as many niggers as you can."

They visited the bandstand - a concrete pad beside a man-made lake - where witnesses said Robertson pumped his fist in the air and led a crowd in shouts of "white power" the day before Allen was killed.

The 12 jurors and six alternates lingered at each site, pointing things out to each other and listening as York County District Court Administrator J. Robert Chuk read a scant description of each location. He could not associate any site with evidence or testimony from the trial.

As the procession of umbrella-carrying jurors walked beyond the railroad crossing, Chuk asked for their attention.

"Right now we're at 229 N. Newberry St., this gray house directly in front of me," he said. "Has everyone got their bearings and know where we are?"

He could not remind jurors that the address - less than a block from the tracks - was once the Messersmith home, where witnesses said a cellar had been turned into a stockpile of rifles, shotguns, Molotov cocktails, machetes, knives and ammunition during the riots.

Robert N. Messersmith, 53, is accused of firing the fatal shotgun slug from the street near his family's home. Gregory H. Neff, 54, is accused of firing three times at Allen's car.

Before the jurors' field trip, lawyers wrapped up testimony with the last of 98 witnesses who have testified over 11 days.

Prosecutors called five rebuttal witnesses yesterday, including two black women and two men to refute testimony from a string of 18 character witnesses - from a former congressman and state legislator to some of York's business and community leaders - who attested to Robertson's reputation as a law-abiding citizen.

Loretta Claiborne, 49, a Special Olympian who came into contact with Robertson when he was a policeman in the late 1960s and early 1970s, testified yesterday that Robertson is "not a peaceable person" and "not a law-abiding citizen." Just as Robertson's character witnesses were prohibited by the judge from elaborating on their characterizations of the former mayor's reputation as "excellent" and "outstanding," the rebuttal witnesses yesterday could not explain in court what made them think so poorly of him.

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