Deliberations in York trial break off after 6 hours

Jurors in '69 killing ask judge to clarify legal terms

`They want to get it right'

October 19, 2002|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

YORK, Pa. - With six hours of deliberations behind them, jurors weighing murder charges against former Mayor Charlie Robertson and two other white men in the 33-year-old race-riot killing of a black woman called it quits yesterday evening without reaching a verdict and will resume discussions this morning.

The all-white jury of six men and six women came in with seven questions yesterday morning and emerged twice more during the day from the deliberations room with inquiries for York County Judge John C. Uhler.

Deliberations followed testimony from 98 witnesses over 12 days of trial - a day longer than the July 1969 race riots during which Lillie Belle Allen, 27, of Aiken, S.C., was shot to death after her family unknowingly strayed into a hostile white neighborhood.

Robert N. Messersmith, 53, and Gregory H. Neff, 54, former gang leaders accused of being the shooters, face charges of first- and second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter. Robertson, 68, is accused of handing out bullets and encouraging the white gangs to kill blacks while he was a police officer. His attorneys did not allow jurors to consider the lesser charge of manslaughter in his case.

The jurors' indecision and questions kept lawyers guessing - and running in and out of the courthouse - all day.

"It means it's a complicated case," prosecutor Fran Chardo said yesterday morning after the second set of questions. "They want to get it right, and I don't blame them."

By 3:50 p.m., when jurors sent the judge a note requesting clarification on the law about self-defense and sent a third appeal for Uhler to explain aspects of second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter, most of the jurors appeared weary.

Some rubbed their eyes. Others massaged their temples. One man - a state employee who sets up unemployment centers around Pennsylvania - pinched his eyes shut and rested his head in his hands throughout the judge's instructions.

Hours later, after the panel returned to the courtroom for the last time, defense attorneys threw up their hands in confusion.

"I don't have any idea," William C. Costopoulos, an attorney for Robertson, said. "It's like reading tea leaves. You don't know if they're asking these questions collectively or if it's one or two asking because they're pursuing a belief. The worst thing you can do is try to interpret the questions."

Which is what just about everyone was trying to do yesterday afternoon.

"It sounds to me like they want to convict somebody of something, doesn't it?" said Frank Arcuri, a lawyer for Arthur N. "Artie" Messersmith, the younger brother of Robert Messersmith and one of six men who pleaded guilty to lesser charges in return for their testimony. "The question of whether someone can be guilty as an accessory to voluntary manslaughter indicates they want to find somebody guilty of manslaughter, and they think someone else aided the situation."

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