YORK With no witnesses and a case built on circumstantial evidence pointing to one suspect, legal experts say, prosecutors will face a challenge this week when trying to persuade a jury that Julia Phillips killed former York Mayor Melvin Roberts three years ago.
The Gaffney woman – who is either 68 or 71, according to conflicting court records – has claimed from the beginning that on Feb. 4, 2010, her birthday, a black man bound her with duct tape and stole her money.
That same intruder, whom she later said was Hispanic, strangled the 79-year-old Roberts to death in the driveway of the York home they shared, she claimed.
Phillips’ story did not add up, investigators said, when they determined that no robbery had taken place, the duct tape had not been fastened tightly, her clothes had been dry on a rainy day, she had called her son twice before dialing 911, her story had changed several times, and she had tested positive for gunshot residue despite having claimed she hadn’t fired a gun in years.
Phillips was charged with murder three months later. She remains free on bond under house detention.
Police say the motive was money: Phillips stood to inherit property in Roberts’ will, but he had threatened to end their relationship and cut her off financially shortly before his death.
But much of that evidence is circumstantial, forcing prosecutors to provide as much detail as possible to the jury so there is no doubting Phillips’ guilt, said Dick Harpootlian, a Columbia trial attorney and former solicitor.
“Without any witness to the actual homicide, it’s a circumstantial evidence case, which is obviously more difficult,” Harpootlian said. “No one is saying, ‘I saw her do it,’ or, ‘She told me she did it.’
“Those are tough cases,” he said, and all the defense has to do is raise reasonable doubt in the minds of the jury.
Without witnesses, both the defense and prosecution might put people on the stand who will testify whether they noticed any strain in Roberts’ and Phillips’ relationship shortly before his death, said Miller Shealy, a former solicitor who teaches criminal law at the Charleston School of Law.
He agreed that the case will be hard to prosecute, particularly because the state faces the burden of explaining how Roberts died.
Phillips’ attorney, Myrtle Beach lawyer Bobby Frederick, has argued in court that his client is too small and frail to have strangled Roberts. He has routinely declined to comment outside the courtroom.
“Strangling someone is hard to do,” Shealy said, unless the assailant has military or combat training. “That’s not an easy way to kill somebody.”
A hurdle for prosecutors, he said, will be proving that Phillips – who suffers from breast cancer, Frederick said in a recent court hearing – was strong enough to overpower Roberts and secure a noose around his neck while he probably struggled for his life.
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