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Slow start to York jury selection


YORK, Pa. - Thirty-three years after a black minister's daughter was shot to death during race riots in this blue-collar town, lawyers began choosing a jury yesterday to hear the murder case against three white men, including a former York mayor.

After more than five hours of questioning, defense attorneys and prosecutors had settled on one juror - a corrections officer at the York County Prison who had been incarcerated as a juvenile.

Court officials estimate that it could take nine more days to choose the remaining 11 jurors and six alternates who will decide the fate of two-term mayor and retired police officer Charlie Robertson and his co-defendants, Robert N. Messersmith and Gregory H. Neff.

The case has attracted national and international attention and generated nearly nonstop local coverage in York over the past two years. In a show of how difficult and time-consuming it will be to fill the jury box, nearly all of the prospective jurors stood when asked who among them had heard or read anything about the case.

"Let me go about it a different way then," Judge John C. Uhler said. "Is there anyone who has not heard anything about this case?"

Only one of the 101 prospective jurors stood.

"There are a lot of people, because of this case, who have fixed opinions about what happened during what's become known as the York riots," said Thomas H. Kelley, first assistant district attorney and the lead prosecutor in the case. "We need to make sure these people don't come in here with a fixed opinion."

He added: "It has made it [jury selection] more difficult, but it's understandable because of the nature of this case."

After more than three decades of inaction, investigators returned in 1999 to the unsolved killing of Lillie Belle Allen, 27, who died in a torrent of gunfire as her family unwittingly drove into a hostile white neighborhood at the height of the riots. A grand jury was impaneled in the summer of 2000, and nine men were arrested in the case within a year.

Six defendants have pleaded guilty to lesser charges in exchange for testifying at the trial. A 10th suspect was arrested two months ago and will be tried separately.

"We're going to relive the events of 1969," Robertson's attorney William C. Costopoulos said in an interview outside the courthouse yesterday. "We've got a lot of witnesses. We've got a lot of documents and photographs. We're going back 33 years to try this case, and it's my intention not for history to be rewritten but to be relived."

Robertson is the only murder defendant not accused of firing at Allen. He is alleged to have offered ammunition and encouragement to the young white gang members accused of shooting the Aiken, S.C., woman. He was a police officer at the time.

Messersmith is accused of firing the shotgun slug that killed Allen. Neff is charged with firing at the car in which Allen and her family were riding.

Uhler spent yesterday morning questioning the first batch of prospective jurors as a group, posing 47 questions. He asked whether they would suffer any "special hardships" serving in a trial that could stretch four weeks (18 said they would) and whether they or any relatives or close friends had been the victim of a crime (42 answered yes).

In one of the most tedious exercises of the day, Uhler read the names of about 260 potential witnesses and asked prospective jurors whether any of them were relatives, friends, employers or employees.

The list of about 160 prosecution witnesses took almost 15 minutes to get through. Robertson's potential witness roster sounded like a who's who of York's political and business elite. It included a congressman, a state legislator, the president and CEO of Susquehanna Pfaltzgraff, a county commissioner and the clerk of the county's criminal courts, as well as several former and current city politicians, school board members, and police and fire officials.

After being questioned as a group by the judge, the jury candidates returned to the courtroom one by one for more detailed grilling by prosecutors and defense attorneys. Lawyers for each defendant can reject seven potential jurors without specifying why. Prosecutors are allowed 21 such strikes.

Robertson's team of three attorneys used up three of their seven strikes yesterday, eliminating a young woman whose brother was stabbed to death two weeks ago, a female registered nurse who moved to York County three years ago and a woman whose brother could be called as a prosecution witness.

Among the three jurors eliminated by the prosecution was a senior citizen who remembered Robertson appearing as "Officer Friendly" in schools where she worked as a nurse. She also said 33 years was "a long time to have waited" to prosecute a case.

Either side can ask the judge to excuse an unlimited number of potential jurors "for cause" if Uhler agrees that the person cannot be a fair and impartial juror. Five were eliminated that way, including a woman who sits on the board of directors for a local victims assistance center and four prospective jurors who said they would lose substantial income or the cost of a planned vacation if chosen.

Jury selection continues today. The court has summoned 800 potential jurors.

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