A Kensington man with a history of mental illness was found guilty Wednesday of three counts of first-degree murder for the 2016 shotgun deaths of three people inside his rowhouse.
James Elijah Dickson, 45, reacted calmly to the verdict by Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Glenn B. Bronson, who heard the 2½ days of trial without a jury.
Dickson told Bronson that he respected his verdict but insisted, as he did during almost two hours on the witness stand, that he shot his victims in self-defense because they were going to kill him.
Dickson then turned toward the gallery packed with the families of the three victims and said, “I’m sorry for your losses, but they tried to kill me.”
Unlike Tuesday, when Dickson’s testimony touched off an emotional outburst by several relatives of one of his victims, Dickson’s apology was met with stony silence.
None of the victims’ families wished to make statements on the verdict.
Bronson then imposed the mandatory sentence for first-degree murder – life in prison without the possibility of parole – for each of the people killed and ordered them to run consecutively.
“I want to impose three consecutive life terms because there were three people whose lives you extinguished,” Bronson told Dickson.
Bronson heard the case without a jury because Dickson agreed to waive that right if the District Attorney’s Office would not seek the death penalty.
Bronson called the April 17, 2016, slayings inside Dickson’s house in the 600 block of East Westmoreland Street “senseless killings. It’s difficult to figure out how this happened.”
Trial testimony portrayed Dickson, who served two terms in prison for a 1994 rape and robbery and a 2006 sex assault and burglary, as a man struggling with paranoia, convinced that the people in his house, including his cousin, were going to kill him.
The shootings took place during a get-together involving alcohol and drugs at Dickson’s house that stretched into the predawn hours.
As the night wore on, witnesses said, Dickson was increasingly taunted by Kenneth Stowe, one of his guests, culminating with Stowe's calling Dickson homophobic slurs.
Witnesses said that at about 3:30 a.m., Dickson came downstairs from a bedroom carrying a camouflage-covered 12-gauge shotgun. Dickson approached Stowe and shot the 46-year-old man in the face.
Dickson then fired at Ziyon Laboy, 25, wounding him in the left arm as Laboy struggled to get out the front door. Witnesses said Dickson then followed Laboy’s father, Edwin “Capone” Laboy, 46, into the dining room and shot him in the head.
The final victim, Christine Chromiak, 33, was shot to death while trying to find cover in the kitchen.
Three other people escaped the carnage, including Dickson’s cousin Alfonso “Snoop” Liverpool, 46.
Dickson then called 911 and kept police on the line for 90 minutes before finally agreeing to leave the barricaded rowhouse.
In addition to the murder convictions, Bronson also found Dickson guilty of attempted murder for wounding the younger Laboy and trying to shoot another guest.
Bronson found Dickson guilty of two counts of aggravated assault involving Police Officers Stephen S. Cross and Benjamin C. Johnson.
During the standoff, the officers were on the roof of Dickson’s house trying to peer through a skylight. Dickson heard noise, threatened the officers, and then fired the shotgun into a wall.
In her closing argument to the judge, defense attorney Mythri Jayaraman cited inconsistencies in witnesses’ statements and argued that Dickson legitimately feared for his life after saying he heard his guests plotting to kill him.
“He said he feared for his life and had no choice but to do what he did,” Jayaraman said.
Assistant District Attorney Andrew Notaristefano argued for first-degree murder, noting that Dickson fired 10 shots in the three bodies and three shots into the house. That meant Dickson had to reload the six-round shotgun twice, although Dickson said he had never fired a shotgun before.
Notaristefano said Dickson’s purported fear of a plot to kill him was his only possible explanation for the rampage.
Notaristefano maintained that Dickson was furious at Stowe’s conduct and slurs and the presence of the others in his house: “This is a case about rage, not fear.”