A Common Pleas judge accused of defrauding a woman in a real-estate deal more than a decade ago contended to jurors on the opening day of his civil trial yesterday that the woman was well-aware of papers she signed, and of what she was doing.
"She knew everything, she knew everything," Judge Willis Berry Jr. testified loudly in response to a question by the plaintiff's attorney, Barry Yaches, as he sat at the witness stand in a City Hall courtroom.
Berry, 66, was called to testify on cross-examination by Yaches, who represents plaintiff Denise Jackson, 56, previously known as Denise Cleveland.
Yaches alleges that Berry, then a practicing lawyer, had in 1995 transferred a North Philadelphia property from Cleveland's name to Berry's development corporation without her knowledge and for his benefit.
Yaches told jurors in his opening statement yesterday that the property, at 1533 W. Girard Ave., had previously been bought by Andre Hines in 1988 for $25,000.
In legal maneuvering, Yaches said, Berry ended up having the property transferred to Cleveland, then bought it through his corporation, ReddBerry Development Corp., for $1,500.
Yaches said that through this maneuvering, Berry "made a very wise [real-estate] choice, but in the process defrauded my client." The property, he said, was appraised last year at $180,000.
Cleveland became involved with the 1533 W. Girard property when, in March 1993, she slipped and fell on snow and ice in front of the then-empty lot. She had been walking with Oscar Jackson, now her husband. Jackson was friends with Berry, and he and Cleveland asked Berry, who had an office at 1535 W. Girard Ave., to represent Cleveland in a lawsuit over the slip and fall.
Andre Hines had since died in a motorcycle accident. Berry, through paperwork in Orphans' Court, had his friend Henry Reddy appointed as administrator of the Hines estate, Yaches said.
Reddy, now Judge Berry's judicial aide, is an officer of ReddBerry Development, of which Berry is the sole owner. Reddy is a co-defendant in the civil trial.
Evidence in the trial yesterday showed that, in 1995, Berry then had the 1533 W. Girard property transferred to Cleveland. He then bought it from her for $1,500.
Berry's attorney, Samuel C. Stretton, said in his opening statement that Cleveland signed legal documents, including deeds, fully aware that she was first taking ownership of the property as a means of settling her personal-injury claim against the Hines estate.
She then agreed to sell it to Berry because "she [didn't] want the property anymore" as it would have affected her ability to get public-welfare assistance, Stretton said.
He contended that Cleveland's lawsuit against Berry was "manufactured by greed once she knew what the property was worth," referring to the $180,000.
Cleveland, now Jackson, testified yesterday that while she was given papers by Berry to sign, she hadn't read them. She testified that she was not aware that she transferred any property to ReddBerry.