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Jurors hear clashing accounts of sisters' fatal shooting at party

Prosecutors say the man accused of killing his stepdaughters during a party was angered by loud music. His attorney says he was provoked by gang members.

June 27, 2013|By Matt Hamilton

Robert Lee Phillips didn't get along with his two adult stepdaughters, prosecutors say.

They clashed over many things, including music. As a blues musician, he detested the loud and profane rap tunes they favored.

The bad blood came to a head Labor Day weekend in 2006, prosecutors said. Sabrina Taylor, 30, and her sister, Charlotte Johnson, 33, invited friends over for Sabrina's birthday. The party ended in gunfire that left both sisters dead. Phillips is accused of killing them.

L.A. prosecutors allege Phillips could no longer contain his irritation with the sisters. After drinking heavily, they said, he grabbed a gun and opened fire.

"That fatal, final straw was the disrespect they showed to him," Deputy Dist. Atty. Joy Roberts told jurors Thursday during closing arguments in Phillips' murder trial. "He made the decision to kill, and he killed them both."

Phillips' attorney, however, tells a different story. He said the 66-year-old veteran was trying to break up a rowdy party, which was attended by gang members, by discharging his gun into the ground. Someone at the party then returned fire, wounding Phillips in the thigh.

The attorney, Louis Sepe, said Phillips snapped. Amid "chaos and pandemonium," Sepe said, he fired several shots, unintentionally hitting his stepdaughters.

Citing ballistics evidence, the attorney argued that Phillips' gunshots killed only Johnson. Phillips wounded Taylor, Sepe said, but a bullet from another gun caused the fatality.

A Los Angeles jury on Thursday began deliberating Phillips' fate.

Phillips was tried twice before for the Sept. 2, 2006, deaths of the sisters. He was also charged with the attempted murder of four others at the party.

In the first trial, the jury acquitted Phillips of first-degree murder in Johnson's death and deadlocked in Taylor's death. In the second trial last October, the jury deadlocked on every charge including second-degree murder for Johnson's death and first-degree murder for Taylor's.

Jurors last week heard testimony from Phillips' ex-wife, Paulette Phillips, the mother of the two victims. She told the court that her ex-husband enjoyed hunting and that he stored a gun in his van. On the night of the killings, she said, the van was parked in front of their house on the 2000 block of West 84th Place in South Los Angeles.

Recounting the events of the party, she broke down on the witness stand. She said Phillips was angered by the "cussing" in the music, and said Johnson defended the loud music when he complained about it.

"Nobody scared of you, Bobby," Johnson told Phillips, according to her mother. He became more and more angry, Paulette Phillips said, and when she saw him heading for his van, she knew he was going for his gun.

The 911 call made by the victims' mother after the shooting began was played last week and replayed Thursday by prosecutors.

"Please hurry!" Paulette Phillips screamed into the phone. "My daughter had a birthday party and my husband got mad," she said. Later on, gunshots were heard in the background, and after a pause, more gunshots were fired.

Phillips' attorney said his client was shot at the outset of the gunfire, catalyzing the night's events.

But prosecutors used the timing of the gunshots on the 911 call to highlight inconsistencies with that account. They allege that Phillips roamed around the house, appearing to hunt his victims. He shot his stepdaughters before he was wounded, they said. Prosecutors also claim that the person who shot Phillips did so to subdue him.

Sepe, Phillips' attorney, warned jurors that the testimony during the trial often conflicted.

The victims' cousin testified that Phillips was "relaxed," talking with partygoers about sports. Sepe recounted how Phillips offered the DJ a glass of cognac when requesting that the volume be lowered.

"These aren't just minor inconsistencies. They are major discrepancies," he added.

"Please don't compound the tragedy by finding Mr. Phillips guilty of more than something he's actually guilty of," Sepe said, requesting jurors to convict him only of involuntary manslaughter for Johnson's death.

Jury deliberations resume Friday.

matt.hamilton@latimes.com

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