FROM THE ARCHIVES: Ex-mayor free; 2 guilty
Editor's note: This article originally was published Oct. 20, 2002.
Thirty-three years after Lillie Belle Allen was slain, jurors last night found two former white teen gang members guilty of second-degree murder in the black woman’s death, but acquitted York’s former mayor, Charlie H. Robertson.
The decision was met with mixed reactions across York, where the case has prompted much debate since it was reopened three years ago. Some said justice was served, but many blacks expressed outrage at Robertson’s acquittal.
Robertson, who sat stone-faced during the four-week trial, cried and hugged his lawyers when his not guilty verdict was read; his lawyer leaned over and kissed his hand.
Outside the courthouse afterward Robertson thanked those who kept him in their prayers, and broke down in tears again.
“I’m a little tired, and I’m going home,” said Robertson.
As he left, Robertson was asked whether his were tears of joy. “Of prayer,” he replied. “It’s been two years.”
Robertson was accused in May 2001 of providing ammunition to white teen gang members during the 1969 riots, and urging them to kill blacks. He was a city police officer at the time.
Two convictions: His co-defendants, Gregory H. Neff and Robert N. Messersmith, were convicted of murdering Allen, who was visiting York with her family and died in a hail of gunfire after her family’s car was driven into a white neighborhood.
Bail was immediately revoked for both men.
Messersmith glared as he was led away in handcuffs.
Neff’s family gasped in shock and were unable to stifle pained cries.
The two men face maximum sentences of 10 to 20 years in state prison, but Judge John C. Uhler has discretion to release them on probation at sentencing Dec. 18.
Appeals planned: “The family’s devastated. I’m sure he’s devastated,” said Neff’s lawyer, Harry Ness, who had assumed any guilty verdict would be for the lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter.
“Thank God it’s not life in prison. But it’s jail time. We are hoping for an acquittal,” Ness said.
He vowed to appeal, saying one basis will be lead prosecutor Tom Kelley’s biblical quote during closing arguments: “Thou shalt not kill.”
Ness had called for a mistrial after the statement, which is a violation of state trial rules, but was turned down by Uhler.
Messersmith’s attorney, Peter Solymos, said he will also try to overturn the conviction.
“We are very disappointed, obviously, and we are going to look hard at our appeal issues,” Solymos said.
Justice at last: For the Allen family, the verdicts were bittersweet.
“I’m not sad, I feel sort of disappointed,” said Hattie Dickson, the sister of Allen had come from Aiken, S.C., to York to visit.
“We’re not going to stop here. We’re going to investigate the rest of the people involved in this tragedy,” she said. The family is considering a wrongful death lawsuit against the city.
Kelley, however, expressed satisfaction over the outcome, saying the trial “finally found justice for the Allen family.”
Robertson’s acquittal, he said, reflected how difficult it was to charge a police officer in the case.
“But we felt we had to bring charges based on the grand jury’s recommendation. As we heard during the trial, there (was) some pretty terrible behavior on behalf of the police,” Kelley said.
“The easiest thing to do was not to charge Charlie. It took true moral courage. It was the right thing to do despite the verdict,” said special prosecutor Fran Chardo, brought in from Dauphin County to assist with the case.
Neff and Messersmith “were living on borrowed time,” Chardo said. “They should consider themselves lucky because they escaped justice for 33 years."
“These guys were able to live their lives into their 50s. Lillie Belle Allen is in a pauper’s grave,” Kelley said.
Neff, 54, of York City, works for an area electrical contractor; Messersmith, 53, now of Perkiomenville, Montgomery County, has been on disability since a 1995 car accident.
Neff admitted to a grand jury he shot at Allen’s car; witnesses testified that Messersmith also fired at the car and boasted of it afterward.
Jury issues: Under 1969 state law, a first-degree conviction would have required a “specific intent to kill,” Uhler had told the jurors; second-degree murder is any other killing committed with malice.
The jury also had the option of convicting Messersmith and Neff of voluntary manslaughter, an intentional killing in which the defendant has an “unreasonable belief” his actions were justified. But because he was not present when Allen was killed, Robertson could not have been convicted of the lesser charge.
During 10 hours of deliberation that began Thursday afternoon, the jury “struggled mightily” with the decision in all three cases, said a juror who identified himself as Jay, an engineer.
He was one of four members of the 12-person, all-white jury who spoke briefly with reporters afterward.
Jay said the panel “never reach consensus” about whether the central allegation against Robertston was true — that he gave the street gang members ammunition and urged them to kill blacks.
Juror Charles Law, a computer technician with the state government and the only one to fully identify himself, said he found it a challenge to wade through the mountain of testimony.
He found it particularly difficult to sort out the timeline of events that occurred more than three decades ago.
“Aside from the death of my parents, this was the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do in my life,” he said.
Listening to Dickson testify about the assault that took her sister’s life, he said, made him want to cry. Law said he “was ashamed” and “sickened by the whole series of events.”
Law said the late John Messersmith was “one of the biggest culprits here.”
A constant question during deliberations, he said, was, “Where the hell were the parents?”
During the city’s 1969 riots, John Messersmith allegedly established a command center in his home, giving out bullets and guns to frightened young men who congregated on Newberry Street. His son, Robert, was the leader of the Newberry Street Boys gang.
Another juror said he found “one truth” in the case.
“Mothers and fathers, love your children. Teach them the importance of equality and diversity,” he said.
No bond: Attorneys for Neff and Robert Messersmith urged Uhler to allow their clients to remain free on the $100,000 bond they have been under for the past 17 months, but Uhler declined, citing the likelihood the men would serve jail time.
The two men were driven from the back of the courthouse in separate marked Sheriff’s Department vehicles. They were placed in the general population at the York County Prison, said Warden Tom Hogan.
Robertson, his lead attorney William Costopoulos by his side, walked out the front doors a free man.
“It’s a huge case, it’s a huge win, and there’s no question about it,” Costopoulos said.
The lawyer said Robertson “wants the community to heal. York has been his life.”
As for the Allen family, Costopoulos said he and his client were “very sorry that what happened, happened. It’s just that it would not have brought them any satisfaction to convict a man that is innocent.”
Ellen Wagner, aid to Robertson attorney Richard Oare, got on her cellular phone just outside the courtroom to order champagne. Neff’s mother, Trudy, heard her and broke down.
“She’s talking about plans for a party and my son is going to jail,” Trudy Neff said. She and other members of Neff’s family left out the back door, declining comment.
“I always feel sympathy for the defendants’ families. It is a pain they don’t deserve,” Chardo said. “But it is a pain I didn’t bring them.”