Robert N. Messersmith, 53, who prosecutors said fired the shotgun slug that killed Lillie Belle Allen during York City's race riots, was sentenced to nine to 19 years, just one year short of the maximum. Co-defendant Gregory H. Neff, 54, whose plea bargain fell apart when he insisted Allen was armed, received 41/2 to 10 years.
After the sentences were handed down by Judge John C. Uhler, defense attorneys promised immediate appeals while prosecutors discounted Messersmith's last-minute allegations that former York City Mayor Charles Robertson gave another man the gun that actually killed Allen.
Neff's attorney, Harry Ness, said he expected to file his appeal today, hoping a higher court will order a new trial. He said that would give him leverage to negotiate a reduced sentence with the District Attorney's Office.
Attorney Peter Solymos said Messersmith's appeal would be filed within a week and will focus on Uhler's denial of three mistrial requests, the effect of the passage of years on the defense and allegations that jurors improperly consulted each other's notes during deliberations.
Prepared for the worst: Messersmith, who held hands with his lawyer as Uhler sentenced him, was "devastated," Solymos said.
"I think we prepared him to be ready for the worst," Solymos said, expressing concern about Messersmith's health and his ability to cope with the rigors of an extended prison sentence.
Ness said his client joked about getting credit for two months' time served.
"He said he's only got 52 left to go," Ness said.
But Allen's family expressed disappointment.
"It wasn't exactly what we were looking for," said Allen's son Michael Allen, who had hoped both men would get the maximum sentence of 10 to 20 years.
"Did our voice really count?" asked Allen, who addressed Uhler prior to sentencing. "Not as much as we wanted it to."
Buddy, police blamed: Messersmith, in his first public statement about the case since a May 2000 newspaper interview, began by speaking to Allen's family, seated in the courtroom gallery.
"I'm truly sorry for your loss, for Lillie Belle, and that's from my heart," he said.
He disputed the characterization that he was the leader of a group of armed young white men who shot at the Allen family's Cadillac as it stopped on the railroad tracks.
"I don't see how they were under my control. I was just a kid, like a lot of other fellows," Messersmith said.
But then he turned to the issue of city police involvement in the crime, saying "95 to 100 percent" of the force in those days was racist.
He said several city officers attended a gang rally at Farquhar Park on the eve of Allen's death, including Willard Dinges, Jim Vangreen, brothers James and Mike Brown, Newt Brown, and someone he identified as police commissioner William Hose. (Bill Hose, now sheriff, was city police chief in the '80s, but his father Jacob W. Hose was public safety director in 1969.)
New claims: Robertson, a police officer in 1969, was acquitted by the same jury that convicted Messersmith and Neff of second-degree murder. Prosecutors accused Robertson of handing out ammunition used to shoot at Allen and urging white youths to shoot blacks.
Messersmith yesterday went beyond those charges when he claimed he witnessed Robertson hand bullets to "four or five kids" and saw him give Newberry Street Boys gang member Donnie Altland bullets and the gun Altland used to kill Allen.
Altland killed himself along a remote road in East Manchester Township in April 2000, one day after meeting with detectives investigating Allen's death.
Robertson and his lawyers did not respond to messages seeking comment, but he has consistently denied handing out bullets to young men during the riots.
Messersmith's new accusations so upset Allen's daughter, Debra Taylor, that she interrupted the proceedings to shout at him: "Why didn't you tell that before, you son of a bitch. ... You are just as guilty, you bastard."
Deputies escorted Taylor from the courtroom, and Uhler called a recess. After court reconvened, the judge warned that if there were any additional outbursts he would bar the offending party from the courtroom.
Messersmith said he wanted to tell his story earlier, but prosecutors declined offers made prior to trial. His lawyers also indicated after the verdict that he wanted to share what he knew about police involvement in the murder but that also went nowhere.
In court yesterday, he promised to help the Allen family obtain a settlement or judgment in their expected wrongful-death suit against the city.
"I'm going to help you get it. You deserve it," he said.
Prosecutors said they had never heard the details of Messersmith's story, but were not inclined to obtain evidence against Robertson by offering a deal to the man they believe fired the fatal shot.
"You can't make a deal with the most culpable person to get someone less culpable," deputy prosecutor Tom Kelley said.
In any case, he said, double jeopardy rules, which prevent prosecutors from trying a defendant twice for the same crime, mean Robertson cannot be charged again.
Credible witness? Kelley questioned the credibility of Messersmith's new allegations.
"It's easy to foist the blame on Donald Altland. He is dead," said Kelley, characterizing the accusations as "a last gasp from someone who was about to go upstate for a long time."
Assistant District Attorney Tim Barker said Messersmith's claims were not corroborated by the extensive investigation.
In a statement to police before his suicide, Altland said he fired a .30-30 rifle, not a shotgun -- the type of weapon that experts say killed Allen.
"We ran the (investigative) well dry. If someone comes forward with more water, we will take a look at it," Barker said.
Pleas for mercy: Lawyers for the two defendants asked Uhler to impose three-year sentences, but prosecutors and Allen family members said that wasn't enough.
Neff's lawyer, Ness, argued the probation office's recommendation of a 10-to-20-year term for his client was based on a faulty application of the law and a misguided effort to "divide by two the conduct of 200," a reference to the estimated 200 people who were also on the street the night of the murder.
He characterized Neff as a solid family man married for 32 years, a hard worker and someone who had cooperated with authorities before his plea deal was revoked.
Ness asked the judge to take note of the 111 character-reference letters on file (Messersmith's friends and family sent in more than 40 on his behalf), and the dozens of friends, family members and supporters in the courtroom for yesterday's proceeding.
Neff's character witnesses in court yesterday included his uncle, George Barton, who drew tears from family members in the gallery.
Barton suggested his nephew could become a force for racial healing.
"There's talk among some about closure. Given the opportunity and a little bit of encouragement, Greg could be a force for this," Barton said.
He asked Uhler to show "good old-time Christian forgiveness."
Neff's daughter, Tricia Neff, described her father as "the greatest man that I have ever known." She told Uhler how Neff also has served as a father-figure to her two young sons.
Neff's own remarks were brief and addressed to Allen's family: "I am not the person responsible for Lillie Belle Allen's death."
But he accepted responsibility for his own actions that day. "I sincerely apologize," he said.
Elder influence: Messersmith attorney Thomas Sponaugle said a major "mitigating factor" in his client's case was the pernicious influence of older neighbors, his father and city police. Messersmith was 20 at the time of the murder.
His lawyers said they were concerned he was physically incapable of serving a lengthy sentence.
Messersmith's health problems include urological problems that have required surgery, carpal-tunnel syndrome in both wrists, severe back pain from car accidents in 1988 and 1989, and drug and alcohol abuse he overcame about 15 years ago, according to his lawyers. He is also mildly retarded, they said.
"Robert Messersmith is being made almost a target and almost an individual that we can point to and say, 'He's responsible for the 1969 riots.' And that's preposterous," Sponaugle said.
Messersmith's character witnesses included longtime friends and the Rev. Raymond L. Brown, who met Messersmith in 1987 as Messersmith's counselor and has become his close friend.
He also showed remorse, his lawyers said. Since his Oct. 19 conviction by a jury, Messersmith sent a letter, described by his own lawyers as an apology, to Allen's sister Hattie Dickson, who was also in the Cadillac the night of the murder.
But afterward Allen family lawyer Michael McGuckin said it is inaccurate to describe the letter as an apology. He declined to release the letter, saying it was private.
Defends sentence: Fran Chardo, a Dauphin County prosecutor who helped argue the case, said several factors should lead Uhler to impose a more serious sentence -- the violent nature of the crime, the danger the shooting posed to others and doubts about Messersmith's remorse.
"That's not true remorse: 'I'm sorry for your loss,' is not remorse," Chardo said.
Chardo said the two men had "lived on borrowed time" for more than 30 years.
Three-year terms for both men "is wholly inadequate for the malicious taking of the life of another human being," Chardo said.
Allen family members asked Uhler to impose the maximum penalty.
"If someone was to kill you, what do you think would be just punishment?" Michael Allen asked. He told Uhler he wanted "something (so) I can tell my children, 'Justice might have been delayed, but it wasn't denied.'"
Allen said he has asked God to forgive Neff and Messersmith.
"But I would expect for this lifetime here on earth that they be held accountable," he said.
Taylor, her arm around Dickson, told Uhler she was not moved by the defendants' families' worries about the effects of a lengthy sentence.
"I'm very hurt to hear so-called character witnesses tell my family over and over again that you guys don't count," she said.
Dickson said she did not believe the men were genuinely regretful, and she is frustrated at the continually shifting stories of how her sister died.
"We came for justice and we came for truth and we did not get that," Dickson said.
Staff writers R. Scott Rappold and Mike Hoover contributed to this story.