A North Philadelphia woman testified yesterday that she was duped out of a valuable property in 1993 by her then-attorney, Willis W. Berry Jr., who was representing her in a slip-and-fall case.
Denise Jackson said Berry, now a Common Pleas Court judge, tricked her into transferring a Girard Avenue property to him by having her sign dozens of documents without letting her read them. She filed a civil lawsuit alleging fraud.
The property, adjacent to Berry's law practice, had been deeded over to Jackson as part of the injury settlement.
But Jackson, in testimony before Common Pleas Court Judge Charles Smith, said Berry never told her that she actually owned the property in the first place.
Jackson received a $1,500 settlement in the case. The same property had traded hands in 1988 for $25,000. The property, at 1533 W. Girard Ave., was recently appraised at $180,000.
Berry, who denies any wrongdoing, also took the stand yesterday and vigorously disputed her claims.
He said that the property had been saddled with liens and back taxes, and that Jackson had been pleased with the $1,500 settlement.
"I thought I was being fair, and they thought I was being fair," Berry said. "They wanted to sell it, I wanted to buy it. We had an agreement, a meeting of the minds."
Berry said he wrote a check that Jackson and her husband took immediately to the bank and cashed.
Berry said Jackson told him she did not want the property for three reasons: She didn't want to run the risk of losing her welfare checks, she was not in a position to clean up the property, and she could not afford the back taxes.
Jackson said that there had been no such discussion, that she had trusted Berry, and that she'd had no idea how much the case had been settled for.
"I relied on my attorney to tell me what I needed to know," Jackson said, adding that she thought her injury claim had little value because she was not hurt badly in the fall.
Repeatedly, defense attorney Samuel Stratton asked Jackson if she had signed the papers that ultimately gave the property to Berry.
"I see my signatures, but I don't remember signing the papers," Jackson said. "I wasn't given the papers to read, I was given them to sign."
Jackson said she was unaware that the property had ever been listed in her name until an Inquirer reporter, Nancy Phillips, visited her in 2007.
"When she put all the paperwork on my table, I was quite surprised," Jackson said.