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Retired, but memories stay

For 35 years, Roger King relentlessly prosecuted murder cases.

Assistant District Attorney Roger King in his office. The flag belonged to a veteran killed by a neighborhood youth.
Assistant District Attorney Roger King in his office. The flag belonged to a veteran killed by a neighborhood youth.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Inquirer Staff Photographer

As he sat in a room full of boxes and mementoes of cases he had tried - his chair across from a police sketch of a slain woman on a morgue slab - Roger King said he was trying hard not to close his eyes, not from fatigue but from memories.

If he shut his lids, the city's most veteran homicide prosecutor said, he saw far too many dead faces, and the faces of their killers.

King, 63, is a man haunted by his job, which he left yesterday after 35 years in the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office. In a nutshell, said Assistant District Attorney Deborah Nixon, "he is the most accomplished prosecutor in the history of the office."

He has put more than two dozen killers on death row - more, defense attorneys and colleagues say, than any prosecutor in state history. Many of those cases are recounted in at least two major books on the art of trial lawyering.

District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham said King rarely refused a case, no matter what the odds.

"You show me a prosecutor who has not lost a case," King said, "and I'll show you a prosecutor who has never tried a case."

He was the sixth of seven children born to a preacher father and a dietitian mother in Alabama, and an outstanding schoolboy athlete. He was a lineman for the University of Southern California, graduating in 1967, and earned his law degree at the University of California, Los Angeles three years later.

After working for the Federal Trade Commission and a Beverly Hills law firm, he joined the D.A.'s Office here in 1973 and moved to the elite homicide unit in 1976.

His past and present combined this week when he prosecuted a white supremacist accused of killing a black man in North Philadelphia in 1989. The jury found the man guilty of conspiracy to commit murder but acquitted him of a murder charge.

"I never thought I'd have an an opportunity to try a case like this," said King, who told observers that the case was reminiscent of the days when his father preached at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., where four black girls were killed by white racists in 1963.

He is an intensely private person, divorced and the father of an adult daughter. As a rule, he does not attend office parties, although he did show up for his own going-away festivities Thursday. Typically, he was not specific about his retirement plans.

He is reluctant to give reporters his home or cell phone numbers. He said that at one time, when he worked to take down drug gangs involved with the Black Mafia and the Junior Black Mafia, he received at least four death threats a week.

Fellow prosecutor Carlos Vega said nothing deterred King from his tasks.

"Some guys thrive in the courtroom, the level of stress. It's scary," said Vega.

Janette Coladonato, 54, a court crier, said she had always been impressed by King.

"There is no comparison between him and other attorneys," she said. "He is unique. Roger caters to no one. He has an oath that he took and he sticks to it. He doesn't kiss up to anybody."

Noted Philadelphia defense attorney Fortunato N. Perri Jr., who has faced King in court, agreed.

"The office is losing a legend. He's been a tremendous prosecutor. . . . He's someone who's always answered the bell, murder case after murder case, never any excuses. He took the file and did the case."