Attorneys deliver closing arguments in race riot trial

Friday, October 18, 2002

YORK, Pa. -- Prosecutors on Thursday accused police of whipping white youths into a racist, killing frenzy while defense attorneys said incriminating testimony was "bought" with plea deals at the end of the trial of three white men charged with killing a black woman in the city's 1969 race riots.

An all-white jury was set to resume deliberations today against Charlie Robertson, a policeman who went on to become York's two-term mayor, and two men who prosecutors say were members of white gangs that ambushed Lillie Belle Allen on the fifth day of the riots. Jurors deliberated about 70 minutes Thursday.

Robertson's lawyer argued earlier Thursday that testimony failed to show he had provoked a white gang before Allen was slain.

During the 12-day trial, a witness, Rick Knouse, testified that Robertson pulled up to a crowd that had gathered outside a gang hangout, gave him rifle ammunition and told him to "kill as many" blacks as he could.

Hours later, 27-year-old Lillie Belle Allen was shot to death in one of scores of attacks during the 10-day violence between blacks and whites.

Robertson's lawyer, William Costopoulos, played down Knouse's account.

"Rick Knouse was 16 when he saw things that nobody else ever saw in 1969 and heard things nobody else ever heard," Costopoulos said. One witness, Arthur Messersmith, testified that he saw Robertson give ammunition to Knouse, but didn't recall seeing Robertson incite Knouse to kill. Messersmith, Knouse and four other men charged with murder struck plea agreements in the case.

Prosecutors "haven't proven a thing," Costopoulos said.

Plea deals needed

Lead prosecutor Thomas Kelley countered that the plea deals were necessary to crack a conspiracy between police officers and white gang members to kill blacks driving through their turf.

"We're swimming in a swamp, ladies and gentlemen," Kelley said. "You don't find many swans there."

Robertson, 68, was charged with inciting the gang members to violence and providing ammunition in an effort to even the score after a white patrolman was fatally shot in a black neighborhood.

Robert Messersmith, Arthur's brother, was accused of firing the fatal shot. A third defendant, Gregory Neff, was accused of firing three times at Allen's vehicle. None of the defendants testified.

All three could face life in prison if convicted of first-degree murder.

Allen, who was visiting from Aiken, S.C., was shot on July 21, 1969, after she got out of her family's Cadillac to try to help her panicking sister steer the stalled vehicle away from a mob of armed whites.

Robert Messersmith's lawyer, Peter Solymos, said his client was being "offered up as a sacrificial lamb to the gods of political correctness."

He said prosecutors were trying the case as "simply a racist killing by a racist youth" but argued that Messersmith was not a racist and that his gang was organized largely for neighborhood sports competitions.

Solymos didn't deny that Messersmith was on the street and armed that night, but cited expert testimony that his client couldn't have fired the fatal shot into Allen's chest because Allen was behind a car nearly as tall as she was.

Neff attorney Harry Ness said that testimony by Smith and others was "bought" by plea deals.

"Would you trust that, ladies and gentlemen?" Ness asked jurors.

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