WEST CHESTER — The Delaware County man whose “cat and mouse” highway encounter with a Westtown teenager turned into a deadly road rage incident admitted on Wednesday that he fired the shot that left her dead by the side of the road.
As the victim’s family looked on in a state of emotional turmoil, David Andrew Desper entered a plea of guilty to third-degree murder charges before Common Pleas Judge Ann Marie Wheatcraft in the 2017 death of Bianca Nikol Roberson, a recent high school graduate who died of a single gunshot wound to the head as she drove home from a day of pre-college shopping.
Desper, 36, of Trainer did not address the court during the proceeding, other than to answer Wheatcraft’s questions about the rights to a trial he gave up by entering the plea, which carries with it a maximum possible sentence of 20 to 40 years in state prison. “I’m a little nervous,” he said at one point after interrupting one of Wheatcraft’s queries.
Wheatcraft said she would sentence Desper after a pre-sentencing investigation is completed at a later date, either early December or after the first of the new year. H also pleaded guilty to a charge of possession of instruments of crime, a misdemeanor.
The plea represented a difficult compromise between the first-degree murder conviction the prosecution had been seeking, and any lesser charge — including manslaughter — that the defense had hoped for. Jury selection in the trial was to have begun on Sept. 20, with opening statements and testimony beginning Sept. 24.
Supporters of Roberson’s family, some of whom expressed displeasure at the plea on social media Tuesday and Wednesday, gathered inside Wheatcraft’s courtroom, filling up every available seat. In a Facebook post, Michelle Roberson, the victim’s mother, wrote, “We have no choice but to accept 3rd degree murder.” She also suggested that the plea agreement had been communicated to the family only a day before the proceeding.
But in response to questions from Wheatcraft, Assistant District Attorney Christopher Miller, who led the prosecution with Deputy District Attorney Michelle Frei, said that he and others had discussed the matter for some time with the family, as well as police from West Goshen, after he was approached by Desper’s attorney about his willingness to plead guilty to the third degree murder charge.
Miller said his office ultimately did not believe they could prove a first-degree murder case against Desper to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. He and Frei talked the matter over with District Attorney Tom Hogan, who met with Roberson’s family personally to discuss the case, he told the judge
“No one is happy with this situation,” Miller said in court. “No plea will ever bring Bianca Roberson back. And I will not put words in (Roberson’s family’s) mouths that they are happy. But they have agreed to let this go forward. Never have a I met a family more dedicated to their daughter (than the Robersons.)”
Wheatcraft, in a rare move, asked Roberson’s parents — Rodney S. Roberson Sr., and Michelle Roberson — to stand and speak with her about the plea to the lesser murder charge. Neither objected, but they gave no ringing endorsement.
Were they in agreement that the plea was the best resolution to the case, the judge asked? “That is what was offered to us,” said Rodney Roberson, Bianca’s mother standing at his side, visibly distraught.
“I agree that it is a very good resolution,” said Wheatcraft. “Do you understand this is a good resolution? And you will have an opportunity to tell me about your loss. You will have the opportunity to tell me anything you want to (at sentencing). Does that satisfy you today?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he answered.
Desper’s attorney, Daniel McGarrigle of Media, told Wheatcraft that he had discussed the case with his client for more hours than he could count since his client turned himself in to West Goshen police the morning of July 2. He said he had presented the prosecution with information he had developed during his own investigation, information he said he believed led them to accept the plea to the lesser charge.
McGarrigle declined to comment on the case to the press following the proceeding, which took about 30 minutes. Miller and Frei, in comments later, heaped praise on the police investigators who brought the case to trial.
In addition to members of Roberson’s family and their supporters, the hearing was attended by members of Desper’s family; members of the West Goshen police department — including Chief Joseph Gleason; the lead investigators in the case, West Goshen Detective Jose Torres and Chester County Detective Ben Martin; and about half a dozen media representatives.
Roberson was 18 years old and had just graduated from West Chester’s Bayard Rustin High School when she went shopping in Exton on June 28, 2017 and started to drive home on the Route 100 spur in West Goshen. There, she encountered Desper in his 2002 red Chevrolet Silverado around 5:30 p.m. and the two began jockeying for position as the two lane highway merged into a single lane.
According to witnesses, the two cars battled for space along the highway, each trying to pass one another. At some point, however, Desper pulled a loaded .40 caliber Smith & Wesson semi-automatic handgun from his driver’s compartment, pointed it out his open passenger window, and fired it at Roberson’s 2012 Chevrolet Malibu.
According to the facts that Miller placed on the record for Wheatcraft, Bianca Roberson was in the right lane of travel and Desper was to her left. When approaching the merger of Routes 100 and 202, Desper’s lane of travel ended. At the time he shot Roberson, the defendant had no lawful justification or excuse and acted with malice, he said.
Roberson, fatally injured, veered off the highway and into a roadside ditch. Desper sped off as other drivers watched and the incident was partially captured on surveillance cameras.
“The defendant did not stop or call for assistance and instead fled the area,” Miller stated. He “left his red pickup truck at a friend’s house and went to Delaware. After several days, the defendant voluntarily surrendered to authorities at McGarrigle’s office. A search of his residence that McGarrigle said he pointed the investigators to led police to recover the .40 caliber firearm used in the murder.
Although the decision to agree to the third degree murder plea drew fire on social media, at least one outside observer said it made sense for the prosecution to do so.
In Pennsylvania, the difference between first-degree murder and third-degree murder not only comes in the maximum punishments between the two degrees of homicide, but also in how they are defined and proven. Persons convicted of first-degree murder are subject to a mandatory life in state prison without the possibility of parole.
A first-degree murder is one that is committed with premeditation and malice, said Mark Conte, a West Chester defense attorney who spent years as a deputy district attorney in the county DA’s office.
“Malice shows a hardness of heart, a wickedness of disposition, in the crime,” he said in an interview Wednesday. “Premeditation is proven when it is the conscious objective of the defendant to cause a murder. That premeditation can be formed in an instant, a small amount of time. but it still has to be present. Third-degree murder has no requirement for premeditation.”
Conte, who said he was not privvy to any discussions in the DA’s Office about Desper’s case, nevertheless said he hd been part of similar deliberations about other murder cases.
“I suspect the district attorney looked at the facts and evidence that they hd in this case and felt that they had a very difficult case when it came to proving first-degree murder. But a guaranteed conviction for third degree murder was better than the possibility of something less, like manslaughter,“ said Conte.
He said Desper’s attorneys — McGarrigle and co-counsel Mary Beth Welch — could have argued that the back-and-forth jockeying between the two cars refuted the concept of malice. “I can see how the defense could have argued that he was just firing a ‘warning shot.’ The reality is, there is only one person who knew what was going on in that car, and that is the defendant.”
A charge of voluntary manslaughter would carry with it a jury instruction that the crime was committed “in the heat of passion, under serious provocation” — almost a text book definition of voluntary manslaughter.
Conte said he, “understood where the DA’s Office is coming from in their decision. To convince 12 jurors of anything is difficult to do, especially first-degree murder.”
Had the family voiced their objection at the plea proceeding, Wheatcraft could conceivably have made the decision not to accept the guilty plea and force the prosecution to take the case to trial, as some supporters had demanded. (It is a rare occasion when a defendant voluntarily pleads guilty to first-degree murder and accepts the mandatory life sentence that comes with it without a contest.) It has happened.
In 2012, the family of a murder victim, Brian Keith Brown of Coatesville, told the judge hearing the case of a man suspected as being part of the conspiracy to kill him that they did not believe a plea to third-degree murder was proper. The judge then rejected the plea and ordered the man brought to trial on charges first-degree murder. The defendant, Joshua “Jizz” McMillan, was acquitted on all counts.
To contact staff writer Michael P. Rellahan call 610-696-1544.