South Carolina

From prison, Julia Phillips fighting for possession of late husband’s home

Julia Phillips, serving life in prison for the murder of former York Mayor Melvin Roberts, is continuing her legal fight over a house.

It is the same house in Gaffney that her stepdaughters sued to have her evicted from after her 2010 arrest. Last month, a jury found Phillips guilty, and Circuit Court Judge Derham Cole of Spartanburg sentenced her to life in prison.

It is the same house she stayed in for three years under house arrest until she went to prison for playing a role in the strangling death of Roberts, who paid all her bills for a decade.

Judge Cole will hear the appeal of the lawsuit over the house on Oct. 28 in Gaffney.

Even from prison, with housing paid for by taxpayers, Phillips, who is at least 69 but might be as old as 73, wants her dead husband’s house.

It is unclear if Phillips will be brought from prison to the hearing, said Clark Newsom, spokesman for the state Department of Corrections.

“Just when you think Julia can’t hurt anybody any more, this is still going on,” said David Roberts, Melvin Roberts’ son.

It is possible that South Carolina’s seldom-used “slayer’s law” – which generally bars people from benefitting financially from a murder – will affect whether Phillips keeps rights to the home.

Lori Gaffney attended every day of Phillips’ murder trial. Gaffney is the daughter of the late Bryant Phillips, who died in 1999. Julia Phillips married Bryant Phillips not once, but twice.

“This might be my only chance at justice,” Gaffney said to reporters about her stepmother during the trial.

Just days after Phillips was arrested in the Roberts killing in 2010, Gaffney and her sister, Angela Shaheen, asked the Cherokee County coroner to exhume their father’s body to test it for cause of death.

Those tests remain incomplete, the coroner said.

Gaffney also sued to have Phillips and her son evicted, citing Phillips’ arrest and their failure to take care of the property. The sisters had spent almost $60,000 over the years on the home.

In Bryant Phillips’ will he left Julia Phillips a “life estate” declaring that as long as she did not remarry, she could stay in the house. He left ownership of the house, however, to his daughters.

David Massey, Gaffney’s attorney, argued in 2010 that Phillips and her adult son, William Hunter Stephens, an unemployed convicted felon had damaged the house. He described Phillips and her son in court as “desperate people whose lives are unraveling. These are people with nothing to lose.”

Mentioned in court papers and proceedings were prescription painkillers that littered the home, ammunition, property damage and more.

Gaffney won that suit and Cherokee County Probate Judge Joshua Queen ordered Phillips evicted. Phillips’ appealed that ruling, and Judge Cole ordered Phillips to stay in the house while on bond pending the murder trial.

Phillips lived at the house, wearing an electronic monitor on her leg, for three years, until she was taken into custody during the trial.

Despite her conviction for orchestrating the killing of Roberts so she could benefit from his will before he changed it, Phillips still has legal rights to challenge possession of a house she likely won’t ever see again.

In July 2010, Phillips filed a countersuit against her stepdaughters, claiming they wanted the house for financial gain and that all the claims against her were “gossip” and “sensationalism” and “conjecture.”

Her probate lawyer, Charles Marchbanks Jr., wrote this in that lawsuit: “Courts regularly face sensational testimony, but it is imperative to the sanctity of our judicial system that officers of the court pierce the haze of gossip in the search for the truth.”

All of that prescription painkiller abuse was part of what prosecutors used to put Phillips in prison. Phony prescription painkiller prescriptions put her son in prison, too.

That “gossip” and “sensationalism” and “conjecture” has become life in prison for murder for Phillips, and years in prison for her son.

Marchbanks said this week that there remains “a life estate” in Julia Phillips’ name, so she still has a legal interest in the house.

Marchbanks does not, represent Stephens, who was also evicted from the Gaffney house in 2010. But Stephens continued to live there until January 2012, when he was arrested on several felonies. He never left jail and later was sent to prison after pleading guilty.

Police and prosecutors have stated that investigators believe a second person strangled Melvin Roberts, and that Phillips was part of the plot.

Massey said last week that he will argue for Gaffney and her sister’s rights to the house, but declined to discuss what his argument will be.

“All I know right now is the date and time,” Gaffney said last week. “We don’t know what will happen in court.”

It is unclear if the state “slayer’s law” will have any effect on the decision. Generally, that law is meant to keep people who kill someone from being able to reap financial benefits from the estate of the person murdered.

Legal scholars say the Phillips case might not have any precedent in South Carolina, because she was convicted of killing Melvin Roberts, not Bryant Phillips. The probate case involves the home of Bryant Phillips.

Phillips has never been implicated Bryant Phillips’ death, despite her own stepdaughters wanting answers about how their father died in 1999.

And they still have to fight over a house they pay the taxes on, but a convicted killer claims she has a right to.