For many, York murder case isn't over

Defense attorneys set to appeal

slain woman's family considers civil suit

October 21, 2002|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

YORK, Pa. -- Walking home from church yesterday morning, Charlie Robertson couldn't go more than a block at a time without someone stopping him to offer congratulations or tooting a car horn in support.

He was up till midnight Saturday, answering "hundreds of calls" from friends and strangers in at least six states and as far away as Italy, according to the list he pulled from his suit pocket.

Just hours earlier that day, a jury had acquitted him of murder charges in the 33-year-old race-riot killing of a black woman. Only Robertson walked out of the courthouse a free man. The two accused shooters were convicted of second-degree murder.

"So many people called and sent cards, and it helped me stand tall," the former mayor and retired police officer said.

"It wasn't easy being there for a whole month," he said of the trial, "but I'm over it, and I just want to live my own life now. I want to do whatever I want to do, held down by nobody."

Of the people enmeshed in the case since Robertson and eight other white men were arrested last spring in the killing of Lillie Belle Allen in July 1969, the two-term mayor is one of the few for whom the ordeal appears to be over.

Attorneys for convicted shooters Robert N. Messersmith and Gregory H. Neff will probably be tied up in appeals for years. Messersmith, 53, and Neff, 54, are scheduled to be sentenced in December and face up to 20 years in prison.

Six men who pleaded guilty to lesser charges in exchange for their testimony will be sentenced next month. And civil-rights attorneys for Allen's relatives have floated the possibility of filing a civil suit against the city.

"We're not going to stop here," Hattie Mosley Dickson, Allen's younger sister, said at a news conference Saturday night on the courthouse steps. "We are a family that is strong, and we are going to continue to investigate the rest of the people that was involved in this tragedy of my sister, Lillie Belle. And I know that she would want us to."

The all-white jury acquitted Robertson, 68, of charges that as a police officer he offered bullets and encouragement to young white street gang members who later gunned down a black preacher's daughter at a railroad crossing.

Allen, 27, was on her way to get groceries when she, Dickson and their family unknowingly strayed into a hostile white neighborhood as the streets of this blue-collar town throbbed with racial strife.

She died in a fusillade of bullets after she got out of her family's car to take the wheel from her younger sister, who had fro- zen in panic and could not steer it out of the neighborhood, where young men lined the street with shotguns and rifles.

Thomas Sponaugle, an attorney for Messersmith, and Harry Ness, Neff's lawyer, said they plan to appeal the convictions on the grounds that lead prosecutor Thomas H. Kelley improperly invoked the Bible in his closing argument last week.

Playing down suggestions by the defense counsel that jurors should consider the "different values" and "limited social conscience" of three decades ago in rendering their verdict, Kelley had told the jury: "Every life is sacred regardless of whether things change between 1969 and today. The law has always been, `Thou shall not kill.'"

Sponaugle and Ness then immediately asked York County Judge John C. Uhler for a mistrial. With 12 days of testimony behind them and only jury instructions to go before deliberations would begin, the judge told the attorneys that the trial was too far along, Ness said, and did not grant their request.

The defense attorneys are hoping to win a retrial by citing case law written from the missteps of Kelley's boss. In 1986, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned a convicted murderer's death sentence when it ruled that York County District Attorney H. Stanley Rebert had overstepped the bounds of oratorical flair during his arguments. Rebert had told jurors, "As the Bible says, `the murderer shall be put to death.'"

While acknowledging that Kelley had misspoken, prosecutors said the reference in the Allen closing was different.

"This wasn't a direct reference to the Bible," prosecutor Fran Chardo said. "We are a basically religious country where a lot of our society is based on a Judeo-Christian background. A lot of things from the Bible have entered our culture and are used in the secular sense."

Sponaugle said Messersmith can also argue on appeal that his ability to defend himself was hampered by the 33-year delay in prosecution; that a detective improperly implied during testimony that Messersmith had something to hide when he was arrested; and that a question from Kelley to a defense forensics expert improperly suggested that Messersmith knew where to find guns seized by police from his parents' home in July 1969.

"Our defense, given the evidence, was to convince this jury not to convict Bob Messersmith of first-degree murder, and we did that," Sponaugle said. "But I think there are very legitimate issues for appeal."

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