This is Part 5 of Losing Conviction, a series about homicide investigations in Philadelphia.
On Nov. 30, 1984, a Drexel University student who had been working late at a campus computer lab was found beaten and strangled in an outside stairwell, her socks and white sneakers missing.
The murder of Deborah Wilson went unsolved for eight years. Then, a sergeant in the Philadelphia Police Department’s homicide unit took the case to the Vidocq Society, an organization founded two years earlier by a forensic psychologist, a sculptor, and a customs agent. The members met over lunch to talk through cold cases, and this was their biggest case to date. After batting around a few theories, according to reporters’ accounts, the group focused on the missing sneakers. The killer, they declared, drawing on a Freudian analysis of the evidence, was a macho man with a foot fetish.
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However speculative it might seem, that lead set into motion the case against David Dickson Jr., a security guard who was on duty at Drexel the night Wilson was killed but who denied any role in the murder.
There was no direct evidence tying Dickson to the crime. But his trial would become a media sensation in the hands of Roger King, a prosecutor renowned for having put more people on Pennsylvania’s death row than anyone else — in the “high 30s” by his own estimate. According to lawyers and witnesses, he kept a rogues’ gallery of the defendants’ photos on his office wall with the word death written on each.
King was considered a brilliant and effective lawyer, known for taking on high-profile murder cases. He was also repeatedly flagged for prosecutorial misconduct.
At least seven of his murder convictions have been overturned amid allegations that he made improper statements in court, hid exculpatory evidence, or manipulated witnesses by intimidation, threats, or undisclosed benefits. Many other King cases rife with similar allegations are still being argued in appellate courts.
King, who died in 2016, was never disciplined by the bar or the court during his career. Far from being subjected to corrective action, he was celebrated as “the best” by supervisors including former District Attorney Lynne Abraham. She declined an interview request.
Robert Dunham, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said King was singular in his determination to secure convictions — but also a product of the culture of the DA’s Office in those years.
“There’s this culture of winning, and that the trial is a game to win. The truth is irrelevant to that,” Dunham said. “Roger King was outstanding both in his appeal to juries and in the way he appeared to relish breaking the rules.”
Dunham first took notice when he was working as a federal defender, he said. “If you were doing post-conviction work and a case was prosecuted by Roger King, the first thing you would look for was prosecutorial misconduct.”
Such misconduct has played a role in the startling number of homicide exonerations seen in Philadelphia since 2018. A recent report by the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) found that prosecutors failed to disclose exculpatory evidence to the defense in 20 out of 21 exonerations reviewed, in violation of defendants’ constitutional right to due process. In four cases, it said, prosecutors lied in court.
Pace University Law School professor Bennett L. Gershman, a leading expert on prosecutorial misconduct, emphasized that the majority of prosecutors are diligent. But those who abuse the extraordinary power of the office rarely risk either discipline from the bar or action from the courts, he said.
“Prosecutors know they can cross the line if they have a fairly strong case,” he said. “They can cross the line pretty far because an appellate court is going to say ‘harmless error.’ A rational prosecutor is going to go as far as he can, knowing he can get away with it.”
» READ MORE: The battle in Philly DA’s Office: Conviction Integrity Unit report shows rocky path to reform
Even in that context, he believes King’s seven reversals to date are “close to a record.”
Most recently, in 2019, Chester Hollman III was exonerated of the 1991 shooting of Tae Jun Ho after the CIU concluded that King and detectives had hid evidence and coerced witnesses. One witness said King threatened him with jail time for a burglary unless he cooperated, but helped him get probation after he testified falsely against Hollman. The CIU also found the witness had an extensive criminal record that King had failed to disclose.
The same year, a Philadelphia judge found that King’s misconduct contributed to the wrongful conviction of Orlando Maisonet, who spent 28 years on death row for the 1982 murder of Jorge Figueroa.
And, in 2013, a federal judge found King suppressed evidence that could have cleared Jimmy Dennis of the 1991 murder of a high school student, Chedell Williams.
“I didn’t know who Roger King was,” said Dennis, who accepted a plea deal in 2016 resulting in his release after 25 years on death row. “When I did get wind of him, I realized that I was dealing with a monster of epic proportions, and that my life wasn’t going to be the same.”
Still, former Gov. Ed Rendell, who was DA from 1978 to 1986, said King’s seven reversals don’t necessarily reveal a pattern of misconduct.
If King was overzealous, Rendell said, it was understandable: “More guilty people go free on technicalities than innocent people get convicted. There is a level of frustration there that grows.”
Some say King responded by rigging cases.
One former Philadelphia police officer-turned-activist, Terence Jones, recalled how King ran his trial prep sessions, which were seen as a perk because officers were paid overtime: “He wanted me to change my story. … He’d just say, ‘It would make more sense if it happened this way.’”
While many recanting witnesses have accused homicide detectives of coercing them to sign fabricated statements, some said it was King who pressured them to go through with false testimony. One witness against Jimmy Dennis later told a defense investigator he’d tried to correct his statement before the trial, according to an affidavit filed in court. But King said the statement could not be changed, he added. “So then I really felt that I couldn’t say anything,” the witness, Charles Thompson, said. “I was intimidated by Mr. King. His aggression, indescribable.”
Some critics, including Dunham, say King’s record of reversals and admonishments by appellate courts ought to trigger a comprehensive review of his hundreds of cases.
Patricia Cummings, supervisor of the Conviction Integrity Unit, said a comprehensive review wasn’t possible for her team, which is already grappling with a thousand-case backlog.
“We don’t have an exhaustive list. We do flag them,” she said. “If it’s a Roger King case, we’re going to look at it a little closer.”
A circumstantial case
The Dickson trial, held in May 1995, once again propelled King into the headlines. He forged ahead with the Vidocq Society theory of the sneaker fetishist.
“The whole case revolves around the fascination, the arousal caused by white sneakers,” he said in his opening, holding up a shoe before the jury.
King’s case was entirely circumstantial, but he made up for that in numbers. He presented 35 witnesses and 100 exhibits: footwear, porn videos, workout tapes, and amateur erotic fiction.
Over the years, Dickson had provided plenty of material for King to work with.
King called to the stand a former coworker who was disturbed by a love letter Dickson had sent her. Dickson, then a janitor, was fired as a result, and later the woman said she received whispered rape threats from an unknown caller.
King walked a colleague of Dickson’s, Vera Simmons, through testimony that Dickson — a former martial-arts instructor — had given a “self-defense” demonstration that felt more like a reenactment of the crime. “He said, ‘Let me show you how it was done,’” she said in an interview. “He could be innocent, you know. I don’t know. I only know what he demonstrated.” (Dickson said he only showed her how to escape a predator attacking from behind by twisting and breaking the attacker’s pinkie.)
King also called a woman who said Dickson stole her sneakers and wrote a flirtatious note on her mirror. “Awkward” is how that woman, Barbara Dean, described testifying for the prosecution — particularly because she believes Dickson is innocent of murder. “I seriously doubt he did anything like that. We’ve known each other since teenagers,” she said. “I just find it very hard to believe.”
And, King brought in a woman who had served in the Army with Dickson in the 1970s, who testified Dickson had been court-martialed for stealing her sneakers. (Dickson provided court records showing it wasn’t sneakers but a pool cue and a tape recorder. He denied breaking in or stealing the items, which he said he had found outside.)
All in all, King succeeded in making Dickson look like a creep. But he still had no proof Dickson was a killer. He had no eyewitnesses and no physical evidence.
And Dickson hoped the jury would see that details of King’s prosecution didn’t add up. For instance, the timeline: Wilson’s boyfriend said he left her working on the computer at 1:30 a.m. Her last keystroke was recorded at 1:38, before she was interrupted midsentence. Yet, testimony placed Dickson at the building’s front desk from around 1:40 to 2:15 a.m., fielding phone calls and chatting with his supervisor.
Then King produced a witness who could link Dickson to the murder: a jailhouse informant who said Dickson had confessed everything.
» READ MORE: Jailhouse informants say Philly homicide detectives traded sex for testimony in murder cases
When a 32-year-old man named Jay Wolchansky settled into the witness stand, Dickson felt awash with confusion. He barely recognized him, he said. But King walked Wolchansky through richly detailed testimony in which he said Dickson had bragged about strangling the young woman with his bare hands.
Wolchansky’s account clashed with the medical examiner’s conclusion that the victim was strangled with a cord or wire. Dickson’s lawyer further dismantled Wolchansky’s credibility, noting his record of 15 convictions and snarking that perhaps Wolchansky was a “burglar fetishist.”
The jury deliberated for five days, then declared itself deadlocked. It meant Dickson would face a second trial. “We’ll do it again,” King told reporters, refusing to acknowledge any shortcoming in the case. “We’ll reevaluate based on the type of jury we had.”
Next time, King would have a backup plan.
‘A protector of Black communities’
The son of a Baptist minister in Tuscaloosa, Ala., King joined the tail end of the Great Migration in the 1960s, leaving the segregated South to attend the University of Southern California, where he aspired to play college football.
He went to law school at the University of California, Los Angeles, and moved to Philadelphia a few years later, planning to join a private practice. He wasn’t hired and later derided what he saw as the “Ivy League mentality” of the city’s white-shoe firms. Instead, in 1973, he joined the DA’s Office and quickly attained a degree of local celebrity. His cases drew crowds of young lawyers eager to watch him work.
King’s theatrical courtroom persona was, many theorized, shaped by his personal history. Like a preacher, he modulated his cadence, rhetoric, and volume to captivate his audience. Like a football player, he could use his size — he stood 6-foot-2 — to intimidate.
By the time of Dickson’s trial, King had explored running for judge five times. But, he told a reporter, he’d soured on the political class and had “nothing in common” with those on the bench. “I walk into a courtroom as a player, and the person who is supposed to be the referee sits up there and has never been on the playing field,” he said. “That’s disturbing.”
Instead, he turned his single-minded focus to his cases, working such long hours he “blew out a marriage” and missed funerals. He took an unusually hands-on approach to overseeing investigations. “Most of my murder cases, I have from the inception — I put together,” he explained once.
Charles Gallagher III, who was chief of the DA’s homicide unit overseeing King, said he was “an excellent, very effective, very hardworking, very dedicated career prosecutor.” He prosecuted 10 or 20 cases a year for three decades, Gallagher noted. (In that context, he characterized King’s number of reversals as “minimal.”)
King relished tackling high-profile cases: serial killers, murders of police, and homicides linked to drug gangs like the Junior Black Mafia. He had a reputation for seeking capital punishment whenever possible. The death penalty, he said, “deters a person from committing future atrocities.”
He had a knack for generating headlines. He once alleged in court that the defendants in a murder case were plotting to kill him. “They will regret it,” he told a reporter. “This just strengthens our resolve.” Another time, he told an interviewer he received at least four death threats a week.
Often, though, it was King who intimidated, outmatched, and overpowered the underpaid court-appointed defense lawyers.
“The judiciary deferred to him and the defense bar was scared of him. That’s a recipe for misconduct,” said Marc Bookman, executive director of the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation.
Some of those mismatches would contribute to overturned convictions — most notably that of William Nieves, who was represented at a 1994 murder trial by a divorce lawyer who had never handled a criminal case and was paid just $2,500. (That was about 1% of the cost of an adequate capital defense at the time, according to a 1998 study.) Nieves spent six years on death row before being retried and acquitted.
Speaking to Evergreen College folklorist Sam Schrager for his 1999 book The Trial Lawyer’s Art, King said he favored “a persistent, pressurized approach. … If you apply enough pressure on the typical defense attorney, he’ll make a mistake.”
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In an interview, Schrager said he was struck by King’s deep belief in his work: “He saw himself as a protector of Black communities.” It made for a complicated racial dynamic.
King was assigned — or, as Schrager put it, “confined” — to the prosecution of Black and Latino defendants.
He also struck Black people from his jury lists about twice as often as whites, a 2001 study found. That disparity was about average for the DA’s office.
Longtime defense lawyer Robert Mozenter — whom King once challenged to a fistfight in court — said the former assistant DA commanded respect: “He was very tough to beat. He was always well-prepared. The only problem I had was that he was sometimes not professional in his zeal in the courtroom. Sometimes he would have tactics that DAs should not have, like delay the case, make excuses, to try to get a witness. But that’s part of the game.”
Appellate courts repeatedly criticized King’s courtroom conduct, even while declining to overturn convictions.
In one case, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court said King overstepped when he told jurors to “send … a message” with a death sentence. In another, the Superior Court said the prosecutor’s “heavy handed tactics … display an irresponsibility which conflicts with the public trust placed in its office.” The state Supreme Court also found King made “inappropriate” and inflammatory comments in Dennis’ trial. “This is your town,” he told the jurors, urging them to take it back.
Still, Rendell shrugs at claims that King went too far.
“What crossed a line with three or four of the homicide judges was perfectly all right with 10 or 11 of them,” he said. “That was a very subjective standard.”
King’s own view, he told Schrager, was that it was his job to bring the jury along with a show of unyielding force.
“Jurors are very perceptive. If they sense that you feel that there’s a weakness in your case, they’ll pick it up. All they need is one small tear to make a gaping hole.”
King and the Monsignor
At Dickson’s second trial, in November 1995, King was determined to win a conviction.
As promised, he picked a different type of jury, using all but two of his peremptory challenges to strike Black people, the transcripts show. (He denied race was a factor, instead citing one juror’s affect, another’s “irresponsibility” in fathering five children, and a third’s fashion choice. “Whether she had been Black or white, I would have struck her,” he said. “I don’t take jurors wearing nose rings.”)
King still had no direct evidence. But a few weeks earlier, a man named John Hall had written him from the Bucks County jail offering to testify to a jailhouse confession. “Dickson regaled me with his love of the foot on so very many occasions that I cannot count,” Hall wrote. “His fixation is absolute.”
Hall was a more experienced jailhouse informant than Wolchansky. Detectives had nicknamed him “The Monsignor” because he specialized in taking confessions. All told, prosecutors would use Hall as an informant in 12 homicide cases.
Like other prosecutors, King was willing to look past Hall’s lengthy record of stealing cars and committing assaults, and to assume the risk of hanging his case on Hall’s testimony.
Unlike Wolchansky, Hall testified in perfect concert with the medical examiner.
Hall, who died in 2006, relished his role in Dickson’s trial. His widow, Phyllis Hall, said in an interview that Hall asked her to attend court and review his performance. “I was kind of proud of him,” she said.
But, she added, “Nothing he said was true.”
As Dickson’s trial was wrapping up, Hall snitched in yet another murder case — this time making front-page news by implicating his own stepson in the “Center City Jogger” killing of Kimberly Ernest. (That case would later result in a high-profile acquittal.) Dickson’s lawyer accused King of planting news reports celebrating Hall, saying Hall had contacted King with information “nobody else could have known.”
The brewing drama around Hall twice pushed Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Juanita Kidd Stout to the brink of declaring a mistrial. “I’m afraid you’re going to have another one of those prosecutorial misconducts,” she told King at one point. But, almost a month into the trial, she decided to let the trial conclude.
“If there is a conviction, it will certainly be overturned,” Stout said. “There is no way, with all of this, that it can stand.”
It took the jury two days of deliberation to convict Dickson of robbery and second-degree murder.
“Justice was done,” King said. His persistence had been rewarded. “Trust the system,” he told Wilson’s family. “Good things happen to good people.”
Later, in March 1996, four homicide detectives who worked on the Dickson and Center City jogger cases would drive to Doylestown to vouch for Hall at his sentencing in Bucks County.
‘It was legal. I don’t know how moral.’
Though King was a celebrated figure in law enforcement circles, allegations of his misconduct date almost to his first years in the office.
As far back as 1978, Warren Robinson Jr., a key prosecution witness in the trial of Aaron “Harun” Fox for the murder of Paul Lynch, claimed King deployed threats and bribes to secure what King knew was false testimony. King helped get Robinson out of jail, arranged a hotel room, and even gave him cash, Robinson said in an affidavit.
“Roger King showed me all his photos on the wall of his office,” he alleged. The largest photo was of Fox, whom King sought to paint as a Black Mafia leader. “He said this was his biggest case and would make him a judge someday.”
Fox was convicted, and remains in prison though several eyewitnesses have come forward to say he was not the killer.
A few years later, King prosecuted Charles “Joe” Gilyard for the 1982 murder of David Johnson — the fatal beating of an elderly man in his own home — even though another man took full responsibility for the crime.
After a defense witness came forward to say the allegations against Gilyard were fabricated, King scared her out of testifying and potentially discrediting the only witness tying Gilyard to the murder, she alleged. The woman, Jackie McDuffie, said she was waiting outside the courtroom when King rushed into the hallway, towering over her and bellowing at her to get out. “He said, ‘If you come back down here, I’ll have you arrested for intimidation of a witness.’”
In the late 1980s, as crack gripped the city, King repeatedly turned his attention to locking up drug kingpins.
One such case involved the fatal shooting of a 15-year-old drug dealer, Shawn Nelson.
At least seven people told police they’d last seen Nelson the night of Sept. 6, 1987, either looking for his friend Romance McArthur or riding in McArthur’s car. McArthur also allegedly admitted to two friends — and to defense lawyer A. Charles Peruto Jr., in a taped interview — that he accidentally shot Nelson.
But instead of prosecuting a teenage McArthur for manslaughter, King presented the case as an execution by bosses of the “Blue Tape” cocaine operation, Emmanuel Rios and Angel Rodriguez.
McArthur testified, admitting a peripheral role. He took a plea deal for the third-degree murders of Nelson and another young man, Michael Gore. Reached by phone recently, McArthur said he stands by his testimony.
Rios and Rodriguez called Peruto to testify to McArthur’s confession. Peruto, who said he had misplaced the tape and had only a transcript, said King threatened him to prevent his testimony: “He told me he didn’t want to hurt me — at first, he used the good-cop routine — but he’s gotta do what he’s gotta do. Then he said he’s got some information that’s going to come out on cross-examination that I’m not going to like because my credibility is at issue.”
Peruto testified anyway, as King questioned his legal ethics and the very existence of the tape. King succeeded in casting doubt. Rios and Rodriguez were convicted.
In retrospect, Peruto said he found King’s brand of intimidation “amusing.” But he could see how a non-lawyer would be chilled.
“It’s effective. It’s legal,” he said. “I don’t know how moral it is.”
‘King set the tone’
King retired in 2008, having spent 32 years prosecuting homicide cases. Despite repeated findings of prosecutorial misconduct, he was never sanctioned during his career.
That’s typical, according to a 2016 Innocence Project report drafted in response to Connick v. Thompson, a U.S. Supreme Court decision that preserved prosecutors’ immunity, even in cases of egregious misconduct. The report found bar disciplinary committees were largely ineffectual, criminal sanctions were rare, and oversight from either supervisors or the courts was inadequate.
The report suggested numerous reforms, including open-file discovery, which would theoretically prevent a prosecutor from withholding any evidence, and the creation of statewide prosecutorial oversight committees. None of those has been adopted in Pennsylvania.
For years, King was held up as a model for the generations of prosecutors who followed him, studied his arguments, and emulated his tactics.
“King set the tone,” said Karl Schwartz, a longtime Philadelphia defense lawyer. He recalled visiting the DA’s Office to negotiate Jimmy Dennis’ plea agreement and finding himself in the Roger King Conference Room. After District Attorney Larry Krasner took office in 2018, the room was stripped of its name.
That same year, Krasner’s Conviction Integrity Unit began looking into a case with the potential to unravel Dickson’s conviction: the prosecution of Walter Ogrod for killing 4-year-old Barbara Jean Horn. The case had been clinched by the same jailhouse informants who testified against Dickson — Jay Wolchansky and John Hall. The CIU’s review would identify a pattern of collusion and fabrication by the informants, drawing on a cache of letters from Hall to his wife, Phyllis. (Hall coached Wolchansky in both cases, the DA concluded. After Wolchansky “blew it” on Dickson’s case, Hall wrote, he seized the opportunity. Between that and Ogrod’s case, “everyone made out,” he wrote.)
The review would also reveal that some of King’s colleagues harbored doubts about Hall well before King called him to testify against Dickson. In a 1991 case, Assistant District Attorney Michael McGovern declined to use a confession Hall had supposedly elicited because, as he later told the Daily News, he believed the informant was “patently incredible.” In 1994, while preparing for another murder case, Assistant District Attorney Carol Sweeney drafted a document, under the heading “John Hall — errors.” It outlined numerous inconsistencies between Hall’s statement and the physical evidence in the case.
Ogrod was exonerated in 2020. The case King built against Dickson, however, remains intact.
“I believe if Roger King had gave me a fair trial, I wouldn’t be here,” Dickson said.
He spent the pandemic at State Correctional Institution Mahanoy inventorying products to be sold at the prison commissary, earning $1.12 per hour, and worrying about his father, David Dickson Sr., now 84.
In recent years, he’s learned to repair computers, he said, preparing for what remains a hypothetical career in IT. “The only thing I would have to learn is the internet,” he said.
He recently sent home $4,000 — about eight years’ worth of prison wages — to hire a lawyer and try to get his case back into court. “I just hope it pays off and gets me out of here,” he said.