Fate of defendants in race-riot killing goes to York jury

Lawyers and prosecutors try to re-create '69 setting in closing arguments

October 18, 2002|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

YORK, Pa. - A packed courtroom watched yesterday as lawyers closed out the Lillie Belle Allen murder case in dramatic fashion, with defense attorneys arguing that prosecutors had left "mountains of reasonable doubt" without coming close to proving their case and prosecutors belittling defendants' claims that they shot the black preacher's daughter in self-defense during 11 days of racial strife in 1969.

"There is no `it-was-a-riot' defense. There is no `it-was-a-crazy-time' defense," lead prosecutor Thomas H. Kelley told the jury, playing down suggestions by lawyers for former Mayor Charlie Robertson and two other defendants that jurors should consider the "different values" and "limited social conscience" of three decades ago in rendering their verdict.

"Every life is sacred regardless of whether things change between 1969 and today," he said. "The law has always been, `Thou shall not kill.'"

After nearly five hours of closing arguments and an hour of instructions from Judge John C. Uhler, the six white men and six white women of the jury took a dinner break and then returned to the courthouse last night to begin weighing the case against Robertson, 68, and two former leaders of white gangs.

Robert N. Messersmith, 53, once the leader of the Newberry Street Boys gang, is accused of firing the shotgun blast that killed Allen. Gregory H. Neff, 54, one-time leader of the rival Girarders gang, is accused of firing at the car in which Allen was riding when she and her family strayed into a hostile white neighborhood during the riots.

Robertson is not charged as a shooter. Rather, he is accused of handing out bullets, stirring up a crowd of young gang members at a "white power rally" and telling a smaller group of them "to kill as many niggers as you can" hours before Allen was gunned down.

All three defendants are charged with first- and second-degree murder, as defined by Pennsylvania's 1969 penal codes. Jurors can also consider voluntary manslaughter for Messersmith and Neff. Robertson's attorneys did not agree to allow the panel to consider the lesser charge for him.

Until they reach a verdict, jurors will be sequestered, spending their nights at a nearby hotel.

Attorneys for both sides tried to take jurors back in time yesterday, setting the scene for men and women who have little personal knowledge of the race riots that gripped York and resulted in the fatal shootings of Allen and a white rookie police officer, the arrests of more than 100 people and the wounding of 60.

Dimming the lights, Robertson's lawyer, William C. Costopoulos, described the sniper shootings, fire-bombings and roaming arsonists who overwhelmed York's 94-member police force and prompted the governor to send 200 state troopers and 200 National Guardsmen in tanks and armored personnel carriers to quell the disturbance.

Black-and-white photographs of flak-jacketed troops and shot-up police vehicles flashed across a film projection screen as Costopoulos spoke.

Recounting instances when Robertson and his fellow York patrolmen responded to shootings and fires around the city, he characterized the retired policeman and two-term mayor as someone who worked 12 hours a day, from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., trying to control the violence, not exacerbate it as prosecution witnesses testified.

Flashing to a photograph taken during the riots, of Robertson sitting atop a troop carrier, Costopoulos thundered: "You know who that is? That's your murderer in the courtroom. That's Charlie Robertson."

Prosecutors offered a much different portrait.

Kelley pointed to the testimony of two former gang members - both codefendants who pleaded guilty to lesser charges in exchange for their testimony - that they had seen Robertson hand out bullets.

He reminded them that two other men said those gang members told them in 1969 of Robertson's actions. And he recounted the testimony of a veteran policeman who testified that he was with Robertson when he gave a box of ammunition to Messersmith's older brother.

"When Charlie Robertson was breaking the law by handing out ammunition, what does he say? `Kill as many niggers as you can. Kill 'em.' Not `Protect yourself,' but `kill 'em,'" Kelley said. "You know, as he admits, he believed in white power and he was a racist. He was compelling, commanding and urging people to kill."

Kelley also scorned defendants' claims that they shot Allen in self-defense, believing they were shooting at armed black men who had driven to the neighborhood in a similar car.

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