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Convicted killer of former York mayor files appeal

By Jonathan McFadden and Andrew Dys
jmcfadden@heraldonline.com
phillipsday7
ANDY BURRISS - aburriss@heraldonline.com
Julia Phillips in court at the Moss Justice Center in York Wednesday for the seventh day of her murder trial.

YORK Convicted killer Julia Phillips has filed court papers to appeal her Sept. 5 murder conviction and life sentence in the strangling death of her ex-boyfriend, former York Mayor Melvin Roberts.

After an eight-day trial, Phillips, 69, was found guilty by a jury of being an accomplice to the killing of Roberts, 79, outside his home in February 2010.

Appeals generally claim decisions by the trial judge caused an unfair trial. Almost all appeals are unsuccessful. It is unclear when the actual appeal will be filed, but Phillips is entitled under the law to a court-appointed appeals lawyer from the S.C. Office of Appellate Defense.

Phillips’ trial lawyer, Bobby Frederick of Myrtle Beach, could not be reached for comment.

The appeal was filed Monday with the S.C. Court of Appeals. Lawyers are not required to detail grounds for appeal when submitting notice after a trial verdict, said Deputy Clerk of Court Claire Allen with the state Court of Appeals.

Roberts was a legendary lawyer in York, so the case was prosecuted by Greenville prosecutors and a judge was brought in from Spartanburg.

The notice of appeal comes as no surprise to Ronnie Roberts, one of the two sons of Melvin Roberts.

“It is my hope that she dies before this appeal is heard,” Ronnie Roberts said. “She is in prison - where she deserves to be for the rest of her life.”

Phillips was convicted of playing a role in the planning and plot to kill Roberts over trying to get money from his will after he cut off her financial supply and was going to sever their decade-long relationship. Roberts was hit over the head, shot at, then strangled with a zip tie.

Ronnie Roberts said he still “hopes she will tell us who helped kill our father,” and praised prosecutors and police who continue to work the case in an attempt to find the killer.

“The animal that actually pulled the zip tie is still out there,” Ronnie Roberts said.

Kris Hodge, the Greenville County solicitor who prosecuted Phillips, said news of the appeal was expected.

“That is the way these things go,” she said.

Phillips might “be in trouble” on appeal since evidence presented in her trial was enough for the jury to make an “inference” that she was involved in the killing even if an accomplice has not been identified, said Miller Shealy, a former prosecutor and professor at the Charleston School of Law.

Unless Phillips is able to prove that there were defects in the way Circuit Court Judge Derham Cole instructed the jury before deliberations, it might be difficult for Phillips to prove that the jury’s verdict was the wrong one.

Phillips is “definitely behind the eight ball on winning this case,” Shealy said.

Circumstantial evidence, much of what was used to convict Phillips, is valid and not grounds for appeal as long as the jury was convinced, said Shealy the legal expert.

He added that murder defendants have been convicted in the past even if a body had not been found, much less if the identity of an accomplice disclosed.

Phillips didn’t strike “the fatal blow” to be convicted if prosecutors were able to prove she conspired with another to kill Roberts, he said.

In that scenario, the law treats her as a participant in the crime that makes her just as guilty as the person who might have actually killed Roberts.

Phillips is currently at the Graham Correctional Institution in Columbia, one of two maximum-security prisons for violent female convicts. Her son, William Hunter Stephens, who was a suspect in the crime but never charged, is in prison on unrelated drug and fraud convictions.

And despite both Phillips and Stephens being in prison, their appeal of a 2010 probate court ruling where both were evicted from their Gaffney home remains scheduled for hearing Oct. 28, said Brandy McBee, Cherokee County Clerk of Court.

A Cherokee County probate judge kicked both Phillips and Stephens out of the home that Phillips lived in with her late husband, Bryant Phillips, after Phillips’ stepdaughters filed a lawsuit to have them evicted. However, Judge Cole ruled Phillips could stay in the home while on house arrest from 2010 until her trial.

Jonathan McFadden * 803-329-4082

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