YORK, S.C. — Julia Phillips will spend the rest of her life in prison after a jury Thursday night found her guilty of murder in the 2010 strangling of her boyfriend, former York Mayor Melvin Roberts.
After seven days of testimony from witnesses, experts, friends and even a black-market plastic surgeon, it took nearly four hours for the jury to decide that Phillips, 69, conspired with an unknown accomplice to kill Roberts, who had practiced law in York, S.C., for 55 years.
Circuit Court Judge Derham Cole then sentenced Phillips to life in prison without parole.
In a brief address to the court, Phillips proclaimed her faith in God and her plans to keep Roberts’ family in her prayers. She did not admit to participating in Roberts’ murder, instead saying she hopes the real murderer is found.
Her attorney, Bobby Frederick, left the courtroom immediately after Phillips was sentenced and could not be reached for comment.
Roberts was 79 when police found him dead in his driveway on Feb. 4, 2010. He had been strangled with a zip tie.
“My father’s gone,” Ronnie Roberts said after the jury verdict was announced. “He’s gone because of greed. These three-and-a-half years...it was so tough.”
After his father died, he said, only family members were allowed to view the body. Phillips was there, speaking to “my mother as if she was heartbroken. It burns me up...I just hope she never sees the light of day again.”
Although Phillips did not testify in her own defense, jurors said afterward that her words were her undoing. Over several days, prosecutors played hours of recorded police interviews with Phillips.
“It wasn’t one piece of evidence,” juror Craig Bennett said. “It was inconsistencies in her story. Her story did not follow the evidence.”
Juror Steven Morris, originally selected as an alternate until he took another juror’s place at deliberation, agreed.
“It’s the inconsistency of her story,” he said. “Her inconsistency with the facts...the duct tape.”
Phillips claimed to have been bound with duct tape by an attacker who threatened her or asked for money, depending on which story she told police in different interviews.
Detectives testified that the duct tape they found on her the night of the killing didn’t appear to have been wrapped tightly around her. She also described for police several events of the evening, despite having claimed that her eyes had been covered by the duct tape.
Testimony from Guy Blankenship – a confidential police informant, admitted thief and black-market plastic surgeon – that Phillips had offered him $10,000 to kill Roberts, bolstered the prosecution’s case, Bennett said.
“He was a bomb thrower,” Bennett said. “When he came in and said what he said, it kind of blew the roof off for a minute.”
Lead prosecutor Kris Hodge, an assistant solicitor with the 13th Circuit Solicitor’s Office, also pointed to evidence and testimony involving the duct tape as important.
“I am so pleased the jury came back...with the true, correct verdict,” Hodge said. “It was such a collaborative” collection of “various pieces of evidence.”
From the day of the killing, Phillips claimed she had been ambushed by a Hispanic attacker who demanded money as he wrapped her head, neck, wrists and ankles in duct tape and dragged her behind a brick wall some 60 feet away from the driveway of Roberts’ house in York.
That alleged assailant then hit Roberts over the head with a metal pipe before firing a single gunshot, Phillips told authorities.
Prosecutors said Phillips grew greedy and desperate when she realized Roberts planned to end their decade-long relationship.
He already had started cutting her off financially at a time when she had less than $2 in her checking account, owed creditors nearly $1,500 and became solely responsible for paying bills to a Gaffney, S.C., store that Roberts owned but she managed.
Testimony showed Roberts also had been paying for all of Phillips’ utilities, health insurance and trips to beach houses and lawyer conventions. She stood to inherit $150,000 worth of property from Roberts’ will.