Roger King, 72, 'larger than life' retired Philly homicide prosecutor

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Prosecutor Roger King outside the Criminal Justice Center.

Roger King, 72, a towering figure in Philadelphia law enforcement during a decades-long career as a top homicide prosecutor in the District Attorney's Office, died Wednesday morning, Aug. 24, in hospice care in Wyndmoor.

The cause of death was metastatic kidney cancer, said his wife, Sharon Wainright. He had battled the disease for two years.

"Roger had a heart of gold," Wainright said. "He was very proud of the work that he had done."

Mr. King spent three decades prosecuting homicides in Philadelphia, including some of the city's most notorious cases, such as the conviction of David Dickson Jr., a former Drexel University security guard with a foot fetish who strangled a 20-year-old student in 1984.

When Mr. King retired in 2008, he had won 16 death-penalty convictions - more than anyone in Pennsylvania history at the time, according to Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington.

But his legacy was complicated by several overturned convictions. Just this week, a federal appeals court ruled that death-row inmate James Dennis - prosecuted by Mr. King in 1992 for murdering a teenage girl over her gold earrings - should be granted a new trial because police and prosecutors withheld evidence suggesting that Dennis was innocent.

Still, fellow prosecutors and defense attorneys on Wednesday described Mr. King as a fierce and effective litigator - intense, passionate, and at times intimidating. An imposing physical presence at 6-foot-2, Mr. King spoke with conviction inside the courtroom, his colleagues said, and was uniquely dedicated to trying even the toughest murder cases.

"There isn't a person who knew Roger who didn't know the devotion he had to being the best-prepared prosecutor ever," said former District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham, Mr. King's boss for 19 years.

Veteran defense attorney A. Charles Peruto Jr. said Mr. King was "a great opponent."

"Any good defense attorney respected him," Peruto said.

Mr. King was born in Tuscaloosa, Ala., on Aug. 3, 1944, the sixth of seven children. His mother was a dietitian, his father a preacher.

He attended the University of Southern California and was a safety on the football team, according to his wife. He graduated in 1967, then went on to law school at the University of California, Los Angeles. After graduating, he briefly worked at the Federal Trade Commission, his wife said, and in 1973 joined the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office.

After just three years, Mr. King joined the homicide unit, a prestigious assignment for a young prosecutor. Abraham said other young African American lawyers were inspired watching him in the high-profile post, viewing him as "an example of someone who [was] a fearless warrior for justice."

Ed Rendell, the city's district attorney from 1978 through 1985, remembered Mr. King as "an incredible trial lawyer."

"He had a magnetic effect" on jurors, Rendell said. "He riveted their attention when he talked, and he was compelling in his arguments."

Jack McMahon, a prominent criminal defense attorney who worked with Mr. King as a prosecutor in the 1980s, said that he had a "preacher-like style" and an incredible memory - and that many in the office viewed him as "larger than life."

"He was dedicated" to the work, McMahon said. "It was his life."

Besides the Dickson and Dennis cases, Mr. King had a hand in other high-profile murder prosecutions, trying "thousands" of cases, including killers of children and police officers, he told an interviewer in 1995.

In 1997, he told a judge that the defendants in a case had plotted to kill him. And when he was digging into drug gangs involved with the Black Mafia and Junior Black Mafia, he said, he received at least four death threats a week.

Not all of Mr. King's efforts were successful.

When he and a colleague prosecuted the Lex Street massacre - an infamous 2000 shooting that left seven dead in West Philadelphia - they refused to release from prison the four men who had been charged even after new evidence pointed toward four other suspects.

The men later sued the city, and in 2003 they were awarded a $1.9 million settlement.

Mr. King was respected within the court system as a dogged and competitive lawyer. McMahon and Fortunato N. Perri Jr. - another prominent defense attorney - said that as young prosecutors, they would walk to his courtroom just to watch him in action.

Jude Conroy, an assistant district attorney who was mentored by Mr. King, said the office named an annual award for homicide prosecutors partly for him.

And Ed Cameron, assistant chief of the office's homicide unit, said Mr. King was so proud of his work that he later handed out business cards describing himself as a retired homicide prosecutor.

"This job," Cameron said, "was a really big part of his life."

In addition to his wife, Mr. King is survived by a daughter, Karen Epley.

Funeral services will be private.

cpalmer@phillynews.com

215-854-2817 @cs_palmer