When civil rights lawyers Stanley and Sharon King began taking on police misconduct and wrongful-death cases more than two decades ago, a defense lawyer in a case against a local police department told the couple "nobody knows who you are."
They went on to win that case, and more. Since then, the South Jersey couple have built a reputation as a civil rights power duo willing to take on big law firms in some of the toughest cases in the region. They have won million-dollar settlements for victims and families of those killed or injured in violent encounters with law enforcement.
"I think now, everybody knows who we are," said Stanley King, 60. "Every cent we get, we have to fight for it. We try to give a voice to the voiceless."
In their latest high-profile case, the Kings are representing the family of LaShanda Anderson, 36, of Philadelphia, who was fatally shot by Deptford police in June during an alleged shoplifting attempt at a strip mall. Police have said an officer fired his weapon, striking Anderson twice after she tried to run him over while attempting to flee.
"Something went horribly wrong that day," Stanley King said.
The couple plan to file a civil lawsuit alleging police misconduct and believe that the officer used excessive force. They are awaiting an investigation by Gloucester County Prosecutor Charles Fiore on whether the use of deadly force was justified.
The sole litigators in their Woodbury practice, the couple have three other wrongful-death police cases pending and a handful more alleging police misconduct. The firm mostly handles civil cases, which can be costly.
"They've been a blessing to the community," said Loretta Winters, president of the Gloucester County Chapter of the NAACP, which presented the Kings with its 2014 Game Changer Award. "They're not just lawyers — it's a calling."
Said Lloyd A. Freeman, an attorney at Archer & Griener in Haddonfield and immediate past president of the Garden State Bar Association, whose membership includes about 700 black lawyers and judges: "Every black attorney in South Jersey knows about Stanley and Sharon King. It takes a special kind of attorney to do that kind of work."
Known by colleagues for his larger-than-life personality and charismatic style, Stanley King is usually the public face of the practice and handles legal arguments in court. Sharon King has a reputation for compiling meticulous briefs.
"We complement each other," said Sharon King, 55.
They grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., only a block from each other but didn't meet until both were attending Rutgers University Law School in Camden. His bar results arrived on their wedding date: Dec. 7, 1996. "We took that as a good sign," quipped Sharon King. She had passed the bar three years earlier.
It was the second marriage for both. They blended their families and had two more children, sons. They suffered tragedy in 2014 when their son Nadiir, 14, died from an undetected heart condition. The Kings, who attend First Baptist Church of Jericho in Deptford, leaned strongly on their faith.
Before starting their law practice in 1996, the Kings were on different career paths. Stanley was a sports agent, representing professional athletes, mostly black and Hispanic Major League Baseball players. His clients included former Phillies Milt Thompson, Tony Longmire, and Ben Rivera.
Sharon was an insurance claims adjuster and later handled family and personal injury cases at a Camden firm. She took an employment discrimination case that eventually led her to civil rights and police-misconduct cases, and she "never looked back."
While attending Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, Stanley King visited the Southern Christian Leadership Conference every Friday and purchased cassette tapes for $10 of unpublished sermons by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He believed his own work would one day lead him to the civil rights movement.
"Those tapes really gave me the courage to do this kind of work," he recalled in a recent interview. "It set my life on a different course to fight for those who can't fight for themselves."
Stanley King experienced racism in Brooklyn, where young black men learned to avoid neighborhoods where they could be attacked simply because of the color of their skin, said his childhood friend, Andrew Levette.
"We were really positive about our blackness and trying to take care of our own," said Levette, an anesthesiologist in Abington. " I'm not surprised that Stan is a guy who is a defender of civil rights."
The Kings view their role as "David vs. Goliath," taking on cases often rejected by other lawyers because the victim may appear unsympathetic or the defendant is represented by a law firm with hundreds of lawyers and deep pockets. They have one employee, a legal assistant.
"Civil rights litigation is very difficult," said Jonathan Feinberg, a Philadelphia civil rights attorney who serves on the National Police Accountability Project, part of the National Lawyers Guild, with Stanley King. "It's hard to do it well."
The couple won an $800,000 judgment in July for the family of Sherron Norman, who died in 2012 while in the custody of Haddon Township police. Norman, 37, of Camden, was high on cocaine when police picked him up after a disturbance. Police blamed his drug use; the family said Norman was improperly restrained when he was placed facedown in a patrol car with his hands cuffed behind his back.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Joel Schneider praised the couple for taking a case with an "unsympathetic situation" that most attorneys would not have accepted. He approved an enhanced 33 percent contingency fee, about $250,600 for the Kings, as well as $48,000 for costs.
Most of the cases the couple take on never make it to trial, with settlements reached in about 90 percent. They have handled at least 10 cases involving a death.
"They are beyond worthy adversaries," said James Birchmeier, a defense attorney in Tuckahoe who has reached settlements with the Kings in cases involving police in Paulsboro and Penns Grove.
The Kings currently represent the family of Philip White, a Vineland man who died after a struggle with police. The couple also filed a lawsuit last year seeking $2 million on behalf of Taharqa Dean against Glassboro police, alleging that Dean was beaten by police in 2015. Family members say Dean behaved erratically because of epilepsy when he struggled with police after he was found lying on a sidewalk. Both cases are pending.
The couple carefully decide which cases to take, poring over autopsy photos and meeting with grief-stricken families, Sharon King said. "The only thing keeping them from insanity is their belief we're going to find some kind of justice," she said.
Besides the civil work, Stanley King handles criminal cases as a court-appointed lawyer in federal court. Sharon King accepts pro bono representation of prisoners who allege their civil rights have been violated. She was one of the lead attorneys who reached a $3.5 million settlement in 2010 in a Camden police corruption case involving officers who planted drugs on suspects and fabricated evidence. Charges were dropped or convictions vacated in nearly 200 drug cases.
The Kings were recently in federal court in Camden, seeking to persuade a judge to allow Dara Woodall, 32, who is serving 70 years for a murder conviction, to pursue a federal case after missing a deadline to appeal. A jury convicted her of fatally shooting a man on an Atlantic City street in 2007.
"I'm fighting for my life," Woodall testified at the hearing. A decision is expected early next year.
After the hearing, her mother, Tina Woodall, of Atlantic City, said the family was relieved when Stanley King was appointed to handle her daughter's case. "I thank God for him. When I heard he was going to be on the case, I almost passed out and died. I know that he's good."
The Kings think about one day scaling back their practice, "but then somebody gets shot to death," Stanley King said. "We stop and say if we don't help this family out, this injustice will go unrecognized and unfought."