An all-white jury last night found Charlie Robertson, the former mayor of York, Pa., not guilty of murder in connection with allegations that he supplied ammunition and shouted "white power" to incite angry whites in the shooting death of a black woman during race riots 33 years ago.
The jury found two of Robertson's co-defendants guilty of second-degree murder. One, Robert Messersmith, 53, was charged with firing the fatal shot at Lillie Belle Allen on July 21, 1969, and the second, Gregory Neff, 54, was accused of firing three times at her car. Each faces 10 to 20 years in prison.
Allen, a 27-year-old minister's daughter visiting York from Aiken, S.C., was with her sister and three other relatives when they mistakenly drove into a white neighborhood while hunting for groceries. The city had experienced five days of racial violence and rioting, and the killing of a white police officer had led many residents to arm themselves.
The jury of six men and six women announced the verdicts at 6:30 p.m., after deliberating all day. Neff and Messersmith were jailed, their $100,000 bail revoked.
Robertson was accused of encouraging violence and supplying ammunition to the whites who shot Allen . The prosecutor who tried the case, Thomas H. Kelley, told the jury that the three "defendants let slip the dogs of war."
The killing of Allen followed the shooting death of white rookie police officer Henry C. Schaad, 22. In what amounts to a bid to come to terms, three decades later, with the violence and with the bitterness that remains from the York rioting, prosecutors are scheduled to try two black men for murder in the shooting of Schaad.
Robertson was a popular police officer at the time of the shootings, later becoming the city's elected mayor. At the time of his indictment on murder charges, Robertson, 68, was preparing to run for a third four-year term.
The case against Robertson was based heavily on his participation in an outdoor rally held the day before the shooting of Allen and at a park near the site where she was killed.
At the rally, held to protest Schaad's shooting, Robertson and other York police officers told the youthful white crowd that they had to protect themselves. Someone said, "Go out and draw a line on Newberry Street, that's the best you can do," according to Messersmith's lawyer, Peter Solymos. Robertson, according to prosecutors, shouted "white power" and gave live ammunition to at least one of the men accused of killing Allen.
"The police [on] the predominantly white police force made an uneasy alliance with white gangs in town," prosecutor Kelley told the jury.
Allen's sister, Hattie Dickson, testified that, when the shooting began, "I felt like I was staring death in the face." Kelley told the jury that just before shots were fired, Allen got out of the car, frantically waving her arms and shouting, "Don't shoot! Don't shoot!" She was then fatally wounded.
None of the defendants testified. Both Neff and Messersmith lived on Newberry Street, where the shooting occurred. Their lawyers told the jury that armed black men in a white Cadillac had previously sprayed the neighborhood with gunfire. And when Allen arrived, "People shouted, 'She has a gun!' " said Neff's lawyer, Harry Ness.
Messersmith's lawyer, Solymos, sought to portray a city dominated by fear of violence. He said the case "is not about race. This case is about a war."
Six other white men have pleaded guilty in the case. One of them, Rick Knouse, testified that Robertson told him to "kill as many blacks" as he could and gave him .30-06 rifle ammunition.
Messersmith, according to witnesses, used a racial epithet when he declared after the shooting: "I blew . . . [Allen] in half."
Robertson, who arrived at Newberry Street shortly after the shooting, has told reporters that he deserved credit for saving Allen's relatives, but he also acknowledged that he and three other patrolmen did not take guns away from the white youths at the scene, take witness statements or file a report.
"Everyone knew who was involved," Robertson told Time magazine last year. "But everyone just thought it was even. One black had been killed and one white -- even."
At the time of Allen's shooting, Robertson had served seven years on the York police force. On May 16, 2001, he announced that he would be charged with murder.
Messersmith was a member of the Newberry Street Boys, a gang of white youths, at the time of Allen's death. He has been on disability in recent years as a result of a car accident.
Neff was a member of a different gang, the Giraders. Prosecutors had offered him a plea bargain but later withdrew it when he testified at a preliminary hearing that Allen was holding a gun when she got out of her car. Witnesses said Neff fired at the car after Allen fell to the ground.
Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.