Former York, Pa., mayor acquitted in slaying case

2 accused shooters guilty of second-degree murder

October 20, 2002|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

YORK, Pa. - An all-white jury weighing murder charges against former Mayor Charlie Robertson and two other white men in the 1969 race riot killing of a black woman acquitted Robertson last night while finding the two accused shooters guilty of second-degree murder.

Robertson wept quietly and accepted hugs from his attorneys moments after the jury foreman read out his innocent verdicts. Defendant Robert N. Messersmith shook his head wryly and Gregory H. Neff remained stone-faced as the foreman first pronounced them innocent of first-degree murder and then guilty of the second-degree charge.

Their families erupted when Judge John C. Uhler revoked bail for the two, who were handcuffed and led away by sheriff's deputies. Looking directly at his wife on his way out of the courtroom, Messersmith shouted, "I love you, baby." They will be sentenced in December and face up to 20 years in prison.

The verdicts came more than 33 years after Lillie Belle Allen was gunned down at a railroad crossing as her family strayed into a volatile white neighborhood during race riots, and nearly three years after the long-dormant case was reopened.

"We know that justice sometimes takes a long time," said Michael Allen, Lillie Belle Allen's son, who was 9 years old when his mother was killed. "But today we have renewed our strength and hope that justice will give back just a little bit."

Asked if he was satisfied that only two of the three defendants were convicted, Michael Allen said: "A piece of me is satisfied. Justice is not perfect, but it's all we got. We'll hang on to that little piece we were given today."

Messersmith, 53, the former leader of the Newberry Street Boys gang, was accused of firing a shotgun blast so powerful that it knocked Allen out of her sneakers and killed her. Witnesses testified that they saw him deliver what seemed to be the first shot and the one that felled Allen after she got out of the car to help her younger sister turn their car around and escape men with guns. Another witness told the jury that within weeks of the killing, he overheard Messersmith bragging, "I blew that [expletive] nigger in half."

Neff, 54, one-time leader of the rival Girarders gang, admitted last year to the grand jury investigating Allen's death that he had fired three shots at the white Cadillac in which Allen and her family had been riding. Prosecutors read Neff's testimony to jurors during the trial and called witnesses to the stand who saw him shoot.

Robertson, 68, a 29-year veteran of the police force who went on to win two terms as mayor of his blue-collar hometown, was not charged as a shooter.

He was accused of handing out ammunition to and inciting the gang members charged in Allen's death. Witnesses testified that in the days leading up to the shooting, Robertson led cheers of "white power" at a rally, told teen-age gang members to "kill as many niggers as you can," said he would be leading "commando raids" in black neighborhoods if he weren't a police officer and showed them the dried blood of a white officer who was mortally wounded in an armored police vehicle three days before Allen was shot to death.

Outside the courthouse, Robertson expressed thanks to his attorneys and for "the prayers of the people of York, across the state of Pennsylvania and the country."

"I'm a little tired, and I'm going home," he said, fighting tears. "I want to be with my family."

Jurors came to a decision at 4:20 p.m. yesterday, after two full days of deliberations and less than six hours after they asked the judge whether it was too early to declare themselves deadlocked. The verdicts were announced shortly before 6:30 p.m. to a nearly full courtroom.

What followed was one of the ugliest courthouse scenes that many deputies and courthouse staff said they had ever seen.

First, Messersmith's wife, Deborah, turned to Allen's relatives, mouthing, "I hope you're happy." Moments later, she sarcastically told them, "Have a nice night." And as the Allen family left the courtroom, she yelled, "I hope you [expletive] burn in hell."

Sheriff's deputies stepped in, guiding Deborah Messersmith and her relatives down a hall while prosecutors and deputies blocked the entrance to the room across the rotunda set aside for the Allen family - many of whom traveled from South Carolina for the weeklong jury selection and three-week trial.

Meanwhile, as Neff's sobbing relatives were filtering out of the courtroom, Ellen Wagner, an assistant for one of Robertson's attorneys, loudly asked someone on her cell phone to bring champagne to the courthouse.

"That's great," one of Neff's relatives shouted back. "She's having a party while other people are still here."

Yesterday's emotional verdicts followed a long, trying day for the six men and six women of the jury. The group emerged from the deliberations room about 10:45 a.m. yesterday to ask Uhler whether it was too early to ask for a hung jury.

"If you have to inquire," the judge told them, "it probably is."

The group deliberated for another hour, took an hour lunch break and returned to deliberate for another 90 minutes. Telling the judge about 2:30 p.m. that they needed time "to clear the cobwebs," the jurors retired to the hotel down the block where they had been sequestered since the trial ended Thursday evening. They came back about 4 p.m. to resume deliberations and informed the judge that they had come to a decision 20 minutes later.

Speaking briefly with reporters outside the courthouse, a juror who identified himself only as Jay said the group had "never reached absolute consensus" on whether they believed Robertson had handed out bullets or incited the white gangs.

"There was not sufficient evidence to make him part of the group," he said. "We struggled mightily with all of them. There were no easy answers."

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