- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 26, 2002

YORK, Pa. A man convicted in the 1969 race-riot slaying of a black woman has not gone to prison quietly, lashing out at his sentencing and accusing a police officer who went on to become mayor of supplying the gun used in the killing.
The accusation came as the city neared a Jan. 1 deadline to meet with attorneys seeking damages for the victim's family or face a lawsuit claiming the actions of the former mayor, Charlie Robertson, and other police officers led to the death of Lillie Belle Allen.
At his sentencing last week, Robert Messersmith faced the gallery and said Mr. Robertson, in the presence of other officers and Messersmith, leaned into his police car and got a rifle for a gang member, Donald Altland, who had asked for a firearm.
"He said, 'Here, kill [blacks] with this.'" Messersmith said.
Messersmith then described the spot where Altland fired the rifle at Miss Allen a day later, on July 21, 1969, when she got out of the family's car to help her panicking sister steer it away from a white mob.
Mr. Robertson, who was acquitted in the killing, and his trial attorney did not return telephone messages. He has consistently denied providing ammunition to the white gang members accused in the killing or doing anything else to incite violence.
Prosecutors said there is nothing to back up Messersmith's accusation, and an attorney for Miss Allen's family said no one else has echoed his words.
Messersmith did not testify during his three-week trial and remained silent during grand jury questioning.
Altland committed suicide on April 11, 2000, a day after prosecutors interviewed him about Miss Allen's death.
While prosecutors say Altland admitted that he fired a rifle at Miss Allen, they also say they believe Miss Allen was killed by a shotgun slug fired by Messersmith.
Messersmith was sentenced to nine to 19 years in prison on the charge of second-degree murder. The same jury that convicted him and another man on Oct. 19 acquitted Mr. Robertson.
In all, 10 white men were charged with murder in Miss Allen's death. Six, including Messersmith's brother Arthur, pleaded guilty to lesser charges, and another man, Ezra Slick, is awaiting trial.
Along with Miss Allen, a white patrolman was killed during the 10 days of rioting, more than 60 people were injured and whole blocks burned. It took 400 National Guardsmen and state police troopers to quell the violence.
The case was dormant for years before prosecutors opened it again in 1999, saying they had new information.
Thomas Kelley, the county's first assistant district attorney, said investigators have no evidence to corroborate Messersmith's accusations. Messersmith was simply "blame-foisting," Mr. Kelley said.
York County Sheriff William Hose, who was a police officer in 1969 and was in court Dec. 18, called Messersmith a "despicable liar" who was "trying to save his own butt."
Lawyer Harold Goodman, who is representing the Allen family, said he plans to ask the incoming administration of Gov.-elect Ed Rendell to convene a panel to investigate police responsibility in Miss Allen's death.
So far, no one else has charged that Mr. Robertson equipped Altland with a rifle, he said. However, Mr. Goodman added: "I think that [Messersmiths charge] is credible and needs to be tested through depositions as well as at trial."
Messersmith's attorney, Thomas Sponaugle, said he gave Messersmith's charge to prosecutors well before the October trial in an effort to get a plea bargain for his client.
Mr. Kelley said the requested plea deal was "beyond the pale," and he would not discuss details.
"If you honestly believe that a person is a killer, you're not going to make a deal to get an accessory before the fact," Mr. Kelley said.
Had Messersmith's specific charge against Mr. Robertson come into court, Mr. Kelley said, "it might have changed" Mr. Robertson's acquittal.

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide