James Elijah Dickson took the witness stand in his defense Tuesday, insisting he killed three people at his Kensington house in self-defense because they were about to kill him.
“I didn’t want to kill nobody, your honor, but I didn’t want them to kill me in my own home,” Dickson, 45, told Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Glenn B. Bronson, who is hearing the case without a jury.
Dickson’s appearance on the witness stand fueled the already simmering anger in a gallery filled with his victims’ families.
Then Dickson ignited it when he turned to Bronson and said, “I was trapped in my own home, your honor, that’s why I shot. They didn’t have to die.”
“They did have to die, because you killed them!” screamed a relative of victim Edwin “Capone” Laboy, 46.
The woman stood and appeared to try to climb over a spectator’s bench, spewing a stream of obscenity at the seemingly placid Dickson. Other relatives grabbed her around the waist and pulled her from the courtroom, steps ahead of court officers.
Bronson ordered the unidentified woman barred from the courthouse for the rest of the trial and warned the other spectators they would be held in contempt of court if there were more outbursts.
The emotional eruption ended Dickson’s testimony after about 40 minutes on the witness stand. He is to continue when the trial resumes Wednesday.
In addition to Laboy, Dickson is charged with murder in the shotgun deaths of Kenneth Stowe, 46, and Christine Chromiak, 33, and attempted murder for shooting and wounding Laboy’s son, Ziyon, 25.
The shootings took place during a get-together at Dickson’s house in the 600 block of East Westmoreland Street that stretched into the predawn hours of April 17, 2016.
Dickson waived his right to a jury trial and Assistant District Attorney Andrew Notaristefano agreed not to seek the death penalty if Dickson was found guilty of first-degree murder.
Dickson has been treated for schizophrenia, but his courtroom demeanor on Tuesday was far different from his speech and conduct on April 17, 2016.
Before closing his case, Notaristefano played a 90-minute audio recording of Dickson’s 911 call that morning in which a police dispatcher, a sergeant, and then a detective tried to persuade the holed-up Dickson to exit his house.
On the call, Dickson insists he cannot leave the house until after sunrise so his neighbors can witness his surrender, says he does not believe he is speaking to police, and charges that his cellphone was “played with” by Ziyon Laboy as part of a plot to kill him.
Finally, Dickson tells the detective to have the officers sound their sirens and horns so he’ll know they are real.
The noise of police sirens can be heard and Dickson tells the detective: “Now, why did I have to figure that out? I’m coming out.”
Hours later, Dickson is seen being interviewed by homicide detectives on video, portions of which were played in court by the prosecutor.
While the detectives are out of the room, Dickson rails at what he says is the voice of Levi Almonte, a witness to the shootings who escaped unharmed.
“Levi, don’t you lie!” Dickson screams. “I hear you.”
On the witness stand, much of Dickson’s account of what happened matches the earlier testimony of Almonte and Dickson's own cousin, Alfonso “Snoop” Liverpool, 46, who also escaped the bloodbath.
Questioned by defense attorney Mythri Jayaraman, Dickson agreed that the catalyst of the evening was Stowe, who hurled gay slurs at him after a friend of his who is transgender visited the house and “disrespected me and my house.”
Dickson, however, insisted that during the evening of April 16, he heard all his houseguests planning to kill him.
Dickson said he learned that the elder Laboy believed he was responsible for the theft of several hundred dollars and two “sniper rifles” and had money hidden in the house.
Around 3:30 a.m. April 17, Dickson testified, he spotted Laboy sliding a shotgun from under the sofa in his living room. Dickson said that he disarmed Laboy, who fled with others into the kitchen of the rowhouse.
As he stood with the shotgun in the living room and ordered everyone to leave, Dickson said, he saw Chromiak leave the kitchen and say, “You’re going to die tonight.”
Then, Dickson testified, he heard Laboy shout, “Now.”
“That was not paranoia, your honor,” Dickson told Bronson. “They were going to kill me.”