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Farewell to a prosecutor

Roger King retires after 3 decades of putting killers away

Nationally recognized homicide prosecutor Roger E. King, 63, the son of a preacher in the segregated South who gave voice to murder victims in Philadelphia courts, is retiring tomorrow.

After a 35-year career in the District Attorney's Office, King says he's really leaving, to play golf with a handicap of 4 and ponder his future - teaching, working as a trial consultant or an advocate.

He tried to leave in 2006, after signing up earlier for the city's Deferred Retirement Option Plan, but District Attorney Lynne Abraham persuaded him to stay.

"The only people who'll really be celebrating are all those prisoners he put in jail," said Assistant District Attorney Mark Gilson. "They'll be high-fivin' and dancing for joy and celebrating 'da King is retiring.' "

In a statement, Abraham called King "a dedicated and effective prosecutor" and "tremendous asset."

Thirty-two of his 35 years in the D.A.'s office, King spent "trying difficult and complicated homicide cases," she said. "He has devoted his entire professional career to achieving justice for victims of crime."

Known for his "prodigious work ethic," King "could always be relied upon to try jury trial after jury trial without a break," she added. "We will all miss him very much."

During his tenure, King received numerous national and local awards, was featured in two law books and created precedent-setting law.

Born in Mobile, Ala., King grew up in segregated Tuscaloosa, Ala., as the sixth of seven children of William and Susie King, both deceased, and became the first to graduate from college.

His mother was a dietitian in Tuscaloosa schools for 27 years, his father a Baptist minister with two churches of his own.

As a child, King had a front-row seat during the turbulent civil-rights era. He drank from "For Colored Only" water fountains and couldn't eat at whites-only lunch counters.

He was only 10 when Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of the bus in 1955 in nearby Montgomery, Ala., launching the civil-rights movement and the career of a paternal distant cousin, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

By King's 1962 graduation from the "Negro-only" Druid High School, there were sit-ins, demonstrations and civil-rights marches.

To escape the oppressive heat, King visited his sister in 1963 in Englewood, N.J. He was washing dishes to earn money for school and listening to "Murray the K and the Swinging Soiree" on the radio when he heard King was delivering his powerful "I Have a Dream" speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

A 1963 double-whammy - the Birmingham church bombing that killed four young girls and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas - were "the last straw," he said.

An older brother urged him to come to Los Angeles. King transferred his credits from Jarvis Christian College to the University of Southern California - "a poor little rich boys' school." He majored in history and philosophy, and played defensive back and safety for the Trojans football powerhouse, when future icons O.J. Simpson, Lynn Swann and Jimmy Gunn were coming up.

His comparative-literature prof told him that he was one of the most brilliant students he ever had - but that he could not write.

"With that challenge came a mad dash to catch up with what I hadn't read, especially when I was sitting beside guys who read the classics and visited Europe," King said. "Once the writing problem was solved, my grades were 3.4 to 3.7."

In 1967, he entered UCLA law school, where he bumped into Ronald Merriweather, now a Municipal Court judge who supervises the court's criminal division. They recognized each other from Cleveland, where King had spent summers with two sisters, and became good friends.

Merriweather urged the 1970 law grad to come to Philadelphia, his hometown. But King took a detour for a year to a Beverly Hills law firm, specializing in corporate, civil, commercial and tax law.

For another year, he litigated consumer issues for the Federal Trade Commission, headed by A. Leon Higginbotham, the late civil rights advocate, scholar of U.S. racial history and prominent federal appellate judge.

In October 1973, the son of a preacher found his calling: as a top prosecutor for the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office - at first handling frauds and major felonies, and then more than three decades of homicides.

An early riser, King was always first to arrive at the office before 7 a.m. No matter how early Gilson said he would arrive, King's voice would boom: "Good morning, Mark."

King's phenomenal memory of legal issues drew young and seasoned colleagues to his office. He'd pull down one of a hundred or so books from his shelves - on law, anatomy, or one of four or five medical dictionaries.

"More often than not, it'd be right on point, and a case he tried," said Gilson. "He has made more case law than anyone I know."

When King prepares for trial, Detective Leon Lubiejewski said, "He's a very demanding guy. He wants perfection. It was never a lousy case, a lousy investigation; it's, 'What are we going to do next?' "

Merriweather has had King appear before him in homicide preliminary hearings.

Asked if he ever felt any conflict because of their friendship, Merriweather replied: "Trust me, he made sure there was none. He was as aggressive as ever."

Edward McCann, chief of the D.A.'s Homicide Unit since 2002, said that King "could have done his job for 10 years, then gone out in any civil-law firm and, with his skill sets, he could have been a very wealthy man."

Lubiejewski said that King's record of "putting more people on Death Row stopped him from becoming a judge. He couldn't get support from the community."

King estimated that 50-60 percent of his trials were "high profile," including the 1988 case of serial sex-strangler Harrision "Marty" Graham, who choked seven women to death, and cases involving members of the Black Mafia and its successor, the Junior Black Mafia.

But, King said, he felt satisfaction from prosecuting killers of the "little nobodies" who had no publicity. His most difficult cases were of police killings, ticking off the names of seven officers. "They have a lasting effect." *