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York, Pennsylvania's Mayor Charged With 32-Year-Old Murder

Aired May 18, 2001 - 12:30   ET


ROGER COSSACK, CO-HOST: York, Pennsylvania's mayor was a young policeman when Lillie Belle Allen was shot and killed during a race riot in 1969. Now, 30 years later, he is charged with the killing.


MAYOR CHARLES ROBINSON, YORK, PENNSYLVANIA: Murder is the charge. Murder is the charge. I'm standing here in disbelief as to the charge, which they must prove. And to this, I maintain my innocence.


COSSACK: Today on BURDEN OF PROOF, an old wound is reopened and an elected official stands trial.

ANNOUNCER: This is BURDEN OF PROOF, with Roger Cossack and Greta Van Susteren.

COSSACK: Hello, and welcome to BURDEN OF PROOF.

Thursday, two-term York, Pennsylvania Mayor Charlie Robertson surrendered to police on a charge of murder. He was arrested just two days after he won the Democratic nomination for mayor. Robertson, along with seven others, was charged in connection with the murder of Lillie Belle Allen, a young black woman killed during the city's race riots of 1969.

At the time of the killing, Robertson was a York police officer who, according to prosecutors, gave ammunition to white gang members and told them to kill blacks. Robertson, now 67, turned himself over to police, but maintains his innocence. A preliminary hearing will be held next Friday.

So joining us today from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Randy Parker, the news editor at "The York Daily Record." And also from Harrisburg, criminal defense attorney Frank Arcuri, who's representing Arthur Messersmith, who has also been charged in the death of Lillie Belle Allen. In Montgomery, Alabama, Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center. And here in Washington, Charles Waites (ph), former federal prosecutor Demaurice Smith and Natalie Waites (ph). I think we have them switched. Natalie is on the left and Charles is on the right. In the back, Ted Schroeder (ph) and Casey Cammatte (ph). First, I want to go right to you, Randy. I'm sorry, I'm going to go right to Randy. And Randy, if you could tell me now exactly what it is that he is, the mayor is charged with.

RANDY PARKER, "YORK DAILY RECORD": Well, he's charged with criminal homicide and also with murder one and two under 1969 statutes. There is no murder charge in Pennsylvania today. It would be criminal homicide.

And the affidavit filed against Mayor Robertson links him to ammunition given to some of the gang members. It also has apparently several witnesses testified before the grand jury that Charlie Robertson, when he was a police officer, attended a rally of some white gangs at a park near where Lillie Belle Allen was killed. He attended that rally and pumped his fist in the air and shouted "white power." The mayor has acknowledged doing that, but he's not acknowledged some other things that witnesses before the grand jury apparently testified to, and that includes saying some very, very racist comments, encouraging people to go into black neighborhoods, to not allow any black people into their neighborhoods, and to shoot black people if they did see them.

He's also, according to the affidavit, accused of actually delivering ammunition to some of those gang members, 30-ought-6 ammunition directly to one of the people who are also charged in this case, and that testimony about the delivery of the ammunition apparently came from one of his fellow police officers, Dennis McMaster, who's now chief of police in a nearby town.

COSSACK: Well, Randy, there's a little -- a little tension, if you will, between Dennis McMaster and the mayor of York. Isn't it true that when the mayor of York -- that Mayor York (sic) passed over this witness to become the chief of police in York, Pennsylvania, and therefore caused him to leave the police department and go someplace else?

PARKER: Yeah. When Charlie Robertson became mayor, he had been a patrolman on the police force before that, I believe 29 years on the force. When he became mayor, there were a number of people who would have been considered to be in line for chief of police, and several of those folks left when they were not named. Well, and I don't know if it was because they were not named, but about that same time there was a major transition in the police department: new mayor, new head of the police department, and several of those folks, including Dennis McMaster, left the department.

COSSACK: Randy, let's go back to 1969 and make these facts as clear as we possibly can. It was a time of racial tension in York, Pennsylvania as well as perhaps the rest of the country. But in York, at a particular area of York, called Newberry Street, seemed to be the focal point.

On the night in question, or the nights in question, there were large groups of men that seemed to roam that neighborhood. Describe, if you will, the -- paint the picture for us of what it was like at York and around Newberry Street at that time. PARKER: The descriptions that's we've had from people in that community were that that block was essentially barricaded. There was fear that somebody would come into the neighborhood. It was beyond rumors at that point. It had been just a few nights prior to that, that a white car had driven up the street. Apparently it had been given permission by white gang members to drive up the street. There were black people in the car.

By accounts that we've had from several people, that car drove slowly up the street. When it reached the railroad tracks on Newberry Street, the car stopped, the trunk popped open, and somebody stood up from inside the trunk and fired a gun at some of the houses, and that white car drove off.

The night that Lillie Belle Allen was killed she was visiting York. She was visiting family in York. She was from South Carolina.

The family had -- they were on their way out to the grocery store to buy some bread, and apparently they took a wrong turn and they went up Newberry Street. And they were driving in a white car, a white Cadillac, and they were driving up a very dark street. All of the streetlights had been shot out by the neighbors, apparently in some sense of defense and barricading of the neighborhood.

When the car got to the railroad tracks, for some reason it apparently stalled out, and the driver of the car got nervous. They knew that there were people on the rooftops and on the porches all around them with guns. They got nervous, and Lillie Belle Allen got out of the passenger side of the car, went around to the driver's side.

We understand that she was saying, here, let me drive, I can handle it. When she got out of the car, that's when the shooting began, and where and how it began, I guess that's what we need to yet determine for sure. But she was shot and killed. The rest of the family members were able to drive out without being injured, although that car was riddled with bullets. I think, if I remember right, there were something like 100 bullet holes found in that car.

COSSACK: And no one else was -- no one else was injured, Randy, besides the...

PARKER: No one else was injured.

COSSACK: And she was -- and she was killed with one shot. Isn't that true?

PARKER: That's correct, one rifle shotgun slug. She was shot in the chest. And the affidavits that are out now have witnesses testifying that Robert Messersmith shouted that -- that he shot her in half, and you know, we got one, and comments like that. But by all accounts, there was massive gunfire on that street. It just opened up into a major shooting gallery.

COSSACK: It was a war zone. PARKER: Right, and the first officers on the scene arrived in a armored vehicle. They had been at that park where the rally had been held before. The police department had been kind of staging there. They heard the shots. Several minutes later they arrived, and the first two officers on the scene were Charlie Robertson and Dennis McMaster. And you know, by the accounts that we have, they went up and apparently told the family in the car, get out of here for your own safety. And there are details yet to be cleared up exactly what happened at that point, although by one account, when they drove up, Charlie Robertson got out of the vehicle and said, It's OK, it's me, Charlie, stop shooting -- and they did.

He was well-known on that street.

COSSACK: All right. Let me take a break. It was a different time in York in the 1960s. Racial tensions ran high, but did that lead to murder? We'll find out when we come back.



ROBERTSON: I've read the indictment and I feel as if I'm innocent of all charges. That was back in 1969 when I said "White power." That's not acceptable. That should be corrected, and it is corrected as of now, and has been over many, many of years.



ROBERTSON: I said "White power" to a crowd of six people, that I'm ashamed of. I should not have said it. But I look to it as being innocent on these charges, though.



ROBERTSON: Absolutely I do belong in politics and I intend to stay as mayor. I just won the primary elections just a couple of days ago for re-election.


COSSACK: Like many areas across the country in the 1960s, Pennsylvania was plagued with racial rioting and rallies. On July 21, 1969, Lillie Belle Allen was shot to death in her car as her family drove down a city street in York.

Frank, you have -- you represent one of the Messersmith brothers in this case, Arthur Messersmith. First of all, I want to talk to you a little bit about what the government's theory or the prosecutor's theory of -- is in this case.

Now, one of the things we know is, assuming that the mayor gave out ammunition, assuming that that's true -- and we don't know yet. That's yet to be proven, but that's one of the allegations. The bullet that killed Lillie Belle was not part of that ammunition that the mayor gave out.

So how can they, first of all claim, that the mayor was involved, and how -- do they have any evidence that your client, Arthur Messersmith, was someone that pulled the trigger that shot -- that shot the decedent.

FRANK ARCURI, ARTHUR MESSERSMITH'S LAWYER: Well, I don't believe they have any evidence that would indicate that my client shot the decedent. And obviously, if you read all the affidavits, there's nothing that would indicate that the mayor even fired a single shot that particular evening.

Their theory of culpability with all of these people is, we believe, some kind of shared intent, and that is that they all acted in concert, they all acted together with an intent to kill this woman, and that the actual bullet from whichever gun killed her is in effect inconsequential to their theory.

COSSACK: But De, let me ask you, aren't they going to have to prove somewhere along the line that the bullet that did kill her came from among this group that allegedly had agreed to kill, or to at least to shoot their weapons?

DEMAURICE SMITH, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: That would certainly be the easiest theory, Roger, to sustain criminal liability, but I would have to assume that the government is trying to argue that the mayor in this case facilitated, somehow encouraged, somehow incited, and then he took substantial steps which furthered this criminal act, and that it ultimately resulted in Ms. Allen's death. And I think that would probably be the theory that the government is going to try to pursue in this case.

COSSACK: Frank, is that enough as a matter of law? You know, all of us -- look, all of us admit this is a terrible, terrible, tragic event, and what we're talking about now is the notion of proving and disproving a case.

Frank, as a matter of law, is that enough that -- assume the mayor did what Dee says -- you know, he encouraged people, he gave out ammunition, and he said, you know, this is a good idea; he was a police officer then -- is that enough to convict him of murder when, as we've said, the bullets that were used were not the ones and no one really knows who fired that bullet?

ARCURI: Well, you have a hard time getting to that point, but I'm, speaking as a criminal defense lawyer -- and I obviously look at it from the criminal defense point of view -- I would think that there are going to be some genuine problems associated with this particular theory of culpability. That's something that is going to be fought vigorously, and I'm sure that the mayor is going to be testing this in pretrial motions.

COSSACK: De, I guess that's what I'm getting to: In terms of a matter -- you know, lawyers say a matter of law. That means that, whether or not the judge just throws the case out because they say we assume it's all corrected, doesn't make it. Don't they have to come in and have at least one of these -- be able to identify someone within that circle of crazies that night that pulled the trigger?

SMITH: Possibly.

COSSACK: And the connection between that person and the mayor? Doesn't that -- don't they have to say, look, you're the guy that pulled the trigger and you knew that the mayor was -- at that time, the young police officer -- was encouraging you to pull the trigger?

SMITH: Possibly, but there are cases which actually have focused upon assessing criminally liability even if one of those persons is not present when the ultimate act takes place: Conspiracy cases, cases that follow the Pinkerton line of conspiracy law make it clear that a person can be held criminally liable even if they are not ultimately there when the act takes place.

So you could have a circumstance where they could conclude that the mayor took substantial steps, incited this riot, encouraged them to do these acts, even though he didn't do something himself, and then it ultimately happened.

COSSACK: But even under that theory, wouldn't -- isn't the prosecution going to have to prove that the actual shooter -- they're going to have to identify the actual shooter and say that that actual shooter had some knowledge of what the mayor was encouraging them to do?

SMITH: Or find perhaps that unjacketed slug caused one of the holes in the car or somehow contributed to the criminal acts that were directed toward Ms. Allen. All of those are possibilities, but it's going to rely on the facts.

COSSACK: Frank, if they do find an unjacketed slug in the car, is that going to be enough to incur liability for the mayor or anyone else?

ARCURI: Well, if they can somehow show that it was one of the slugs that he gave out or among the slugs he gave out, and I still think there's a lot of problems. Understand the mayor hasn't been charged with conspiracy, he hasn't been charged with solicitation. He's been charged essentially with murder one and murder two under the 1969 law.

And so your people understand this is not a capital case, so there will be no death penalty in this case.

And this is going to create quite a problem. We have to go back and look at what the case law was at that time. Was shared intent a valid theory at that particular time?

COSSACK: OK. Let's take a break again. Old wounds being reopened more than 30 years after the fact. Why now? Stay with us.


COSSACK: Yesterday, the mayor of York, Pennsylvania was charged with a three-decade old murder: 32 years after the death of Lillie Belle Allen, Mayor Robertson and seven other men face criminal charges for her death.

Morris Dees, you know, you have spent a lifetime fighting these kinds of battles. Why now? It seems that we -- it just seems like there's a whole lot of them that are suddenly, old cases that are suddenly being prosecuted that perhaps most of us thought never would be prosecuted. We saw, you know, the church bombing, and now there's investigation into the death of the three civil rights workers, and now this case. Is this a good thing?

MORRIS DEES, SOUTHERN POVERTY LAW CENTER: I think it's a good thing if the motives are good and if the facts can prove guilt. I think it's very important from listening to what I've heard on this program that this mayor certainly should be presumed innocent until proven guilty. And from little I've heard, it sounds like a better civil case than a criminal case.

But the -- and the -- as far as the South goes, the cases that have been brought in Mississippi -- Medgar Evers, Birmingham bombing -- those are important cases to bring, because it's almost like a genocidal situation. A person is killed because of who they are and what they represent, not because somebody was robbing a 7-11 store and shot the clerk. It's kind of a crime against people trying to gain their rights and exercise rights they have under the Constitution of the United States. And I don't think there should be any statute of limitations.

But to me, as a kind of a warning I'd like to lay out here, it was very difficult to convict whites who killed blacks back in the 1960s. We saw the people who killed (UNINTELLIGIBLE) found not guilty, and they had a person who said they saw him do the shooting. On the other hand, I think it might be just the opposite today. You know, people want to do what's right, they want to rectify the past, and as a criminal defense lawyer and as a civil rights lawyer, I think we should be very careful not to think that we have to return a verdict to help the reputation of a town or a city or a state.

COSSACK: But Morris, some would argue that, look, 32 years have gone by, that while maybe there's never a statute of limitations on a murder case, but that perhaps we lose more than we gain by opening up old wounds.

DEES: That's a statement made by some people in the South, especially white people. They say, hey, you know, why drag out the Birmingham bombing thing all over again? I don't believe that really is the case.

I think that -- I know we've seen this word "closure" used with McVeigh and all the others, and it means different things to different people. But when you have a person like Blanton, who basically admitted on a tape that was then taken by the FBI, that, you know, that basically he admitted he committed this bombing or he wouldn't get caught the next time he did a bombing, and with Byron de la Beckwith, who killed Medgar Evers, he actually admitted that he had committed the murder.

And I think it's important to look at another thing, too. In Mississippi, when de La Beckwith was tried in 1963, the jury hung 10 to 2 to convict him. So, that was a desire to convict back then. They had a couple of holdouts. Who knows why? It certainly wasn't because of the evidence.

But I don't think that -- the reason you have no statute of limitations for murder is because it's the most heinous crime a person can commit, and a lot of times, many years later -- if fact, it's easier, a lot of police detectives will tell you, to solve an old crime when people's consciences begin to bother them.

Sometimes they have divorces, enemies. Maybe there's a police chief of a new town. Maybe he's got a motive to doing what he's doing. But if he's telling the truth, then sometimes things come out, when people have axes to grind.

COSSACK: Frank, let me go back to you for a second. There's been a report that Newberry Street, which was the scene of the shooting and probably a major scene of the gang war -- gang -- gangs that were going on at that time was barricaded that night, and that there was no way that Lillie Belle and her family could have gotten up that street unless someone had taken the barricades down. And the implication is that someone let them in, and that could very well have been the police department, because there were police barricades.

I'm not saying they did. There's no evidence to that. It's an allegation. What do you know about that?

ARCURI: We've heard people discuss that, and quite frankly, we have our investigators working on that very issue. It would be a very real issue if the police in fact took down that barricade and let Ms. Allen into that area. It would then almost appear as if this were orchestrated rather than a chance happening.

COSSACK: All right. That's all the time we have today. Thanks to our guests. Thank you for watching. Join us again Monday for another edition of BURDEN OF PROOF. I'll see you then.



4:30pm ET, 4/16

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