Originally created 01/25/03

Judge rejects appeal by convicted man in race riot slaying

HARRISBURG, Pa. -- A prosecutor in the case of two white men convicted in the slaying of a young black South Carolina woman during the 1969 race riots in York did not unduly influence jurors when he said "thou shalt not kill" during his closing statement, the trial judge ruled, rejecting a motion to reverse the conviction.

York County Judge John C. Uhler ruled the remark by prosecutor Thomas Kelley and six other grounds for appeal cited by defendant Gregory Neff were insufficient to reverse Neff's Oct. 19 conviction on a second-degree murder charge.

"Whether an explicit biblical reference, or an unintentional use of a phrase that can be traced to a religious writing, the remark by the prosecutor ... was not reversible error," Uhler wrote in an opinion dated Wednesday.

Defense attorneys for Neff, 55, who was convicted along with Robert Messersmith, 53, argued that Kelley's remark unfairly played on the religious sympathies of jurors and encouraged them to base their conviction on religious law, not secular state law.

Messersmith was accused of firing the shotgun slug that killed Lillie Belle Allen, 27, of Aiken, S.C., on July 21, 1969, while Neff was accused of shooting at the white Cadillac carrying Allen, her sister, brother-in-law and parents.

Kelley told jurors "the law has always been, thou shalt not kill" while he argued that Neff, Messersmith, and other gang members who ambushed Allen's car were not excused from the slaying because they mistakenly thought they were about to be the victims of a drive-by shooting, as defense attorneys argued.

Uhler also rejected appeals by Neff on grounds that have been raised and rejected before, including the assertion that jurors illegally took notes during the trial and that a credible defense was impossible because of the delay in prosecution.

Prosecutors reopened the case in December 1999, citing new information that had surfaced.

Ten white men, including former Mayor Charlie Robertson, were arrested in the death of Allen, a preacher's daughter, who was gunned down by a white mob.

Six pleaded guilty, Robertson was acquitted, and the 10th defendant is expected to plead guilty next week.

Uhler sentenced Messersmith to nine to 19 years in prison and Neff to 4 1/2 to 10 years.

Attorneys for Neff and Messersmith have said they will appeal the convictions to a higher court.


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