THE PRINTS ON THE CAN
Charles Hyder, the career prosecutor, takes his seat in the witness box. He squares his shoulders and stares directly ahead.
"Yeah," he says in answer to a few of the first questions.
"That's right," he adds, fending off a few others about his legal background.
Hyder wears a brown suit with a vest, and dark tinted aviator glasses with black rims that are fitted with a black cord that hangs over the back of his neck so he will not misplace them.
Is there a message here? Is Hyder a tough guy who is also a little bit of an absent-minded professor? Or is his use of the eyeglass retainers merely the adoption of a style current among junior lawyers who read Gentlemen's Quarterly?
Phoenix Suns vs. Portland Trail Blazers
TicketsWed., Nov. 2, 7:00pm
Arizona Coyotes vs. Nashville Predators
TicketsThu., Nov. 3, 7:00pm
Arizona State University Sun Devils Hockey vs. University of Michigan
TicketsFri., Nov. 4, 7:05pm
2016 Charles Schwab Cup Championship
TicketsWed., Nov. 9, 9:00am
Combative and cautious, Hyder sticks out his chin as he awaits each question. Most lawyers are terrible witnesses, always critical of the question being asked. Hyder is more a competitor than a witness.
Larry Hammond, the tall, slim, deliberate-talking lawyer in the blue suit asking the questions, is seemingly prepared with enough questions to last for days.
Hammond has a fast-track legal background. As a fledgling lawyer, he was a law clerk first for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black and then for Lewis Powell and, finally, a member of the Watergate Special Prosecutor's Team.
John Henry Knapp completes the triangle.
The man Hyder convicted and who once came within 36 hours of execution in the gas chamber sits at the defense table in jailhouse blues. He jots with mental abandon on a legal pad. He jokes and smiles with anyone who takes the time to catch his eye.
He was 27 when the fire that burned his two small daughters to death took place in a run-down little house in Mesa. After almost seventeen years behind bars, Knapp himself is a burned-out case.
The stakes for both Hyder and Knapp could not be higher.
Knapp's lawyers have charged Hyder with prosecutorial misconduct. They assert that his actions in withholding key evidence were so blatant that Knapp should be set free without any further trial.
They have also filed a separate action with the Arizona Bar Association against Hyder for prosecutorial misconduct. His very right to practice law is now at stake.
"I take it that by now you are thoroughly prepared to answer all questions regarding your role as prosecutor in the trials of John Henry Knapp?" Hammond asks.
"I don't know," Hyder says without smiling.
Hammond's eyebrows raise behind his glasses.
"You have read the trial transcripts?" he asks. "You have spoken to the witnesses who have testified in this hearing?"
"I have," Hyder says. He speaks slowly, his voice held deliberately in the low ranges.
"And your lawyer, Mr. Donald Daughton, has been sitting in on these hearings and has given you regular reports about what has happened here?"
"I don't think I ought to comment about that, one way or another," he says.
Hyder is citing his lawyer-client privilege. He is also showing Hammond that he is still a tough, crafty lawyer who will not be trapped.
"Your brother, Bill Hyder, also an attorney, has also been here in a professional capacity?" Hammond asks.
"Yeah," Hyder says.
There are no smiles and no attempts at light touches from Hyder. He is a tough prosecutor turned for this hearing into a tough witness. This will be slow going. But fascinating. Every question will be answered. But every answer will be measured first.
"And you have reviewed the files of the case more than once?"
"I think maybe five times," Hyder says.
"And how many times have you met with the prosecutor in this case?" Hammond asks.
Hammond is referring to David White, a highly skilled, fiery prosecutor from the Pima County Attorney's Office who has been appointed to handle Hyder's defense in this hearing.
Hyder thinks for an instant.
"Maybe eight, nine or ten times," he says.
Hammond steps back from the rostrum momentarily. As he hesitates, Superior Court Judge Frederick Martone leans forward from the bench. It appears he is about to speak. But for now, Martone says nothing.
It is Martone who will issue a written ruling at the conclusion of this hearing as the disposition of the case. It will be the most important ruling to come out of Superior Court in memory.
Martone was a mathematics major at Holy Cross and went on to Notre Dame law school. He also earned a postgraduate law degree at Harvard.
Only now are there a few coughing sounds from several spectators in the packed room. Everyone has been listening so closely to each one of Hyder's answers that, until this moment, there has not been a sound.
Hammond is ready to move on to the crucial questions. He has succeeded in setting what will be the parameters.
From this point on, it will be impossible for Hyder to avoid questions about his actions in the Knapp case merely by saying he can't recall the details because of the passage of time.
Hyder, the prosecutor who won a death-penalty conviction against Knapp seventeen years ago, clearly has spent months poring over the transcripts and evidence of the two trials that are the main subjects of this hearing.
Hyder continues to stare straight ahead at Hammond. His concentration is as intense as that of a pinch hitter in a critical baseball game.
Not once does Hyder glance out over the spectator section of the courtroom. It is dotted with lawyers, prosecutors, investigators, an occasional judge and media people.
Hyder has known them all during the years he served as a lawyer in the Public Defender's Office, the County Attorney's Office, and now as a prosecutor in the Office of the U.S. Attorney.
Hyder is a local product whose late father was a judge in the criminal division of Superior Court for more than twenty years. After high school, Hyder suffered the loss of part of his right leg in an industrial accident. He lost a son to cancer. He lost a wife to suicide.
Hyder pursued the Knapp case with an all-consuming energy. It was a cornerstone of his career as a prosecutor. For years, he gave speeches about it. He kept memorabilia from it and showed it to visitors to his office.
Now it threatens to become a millstone around his neck.
Here is the crux of the case that the firm of Meyer, Hendricks has donated more than $925,000 in hours and expenses to the Knapp defense.
Everything about the prosecution stems from the fingerprints and Knapp's confession under duress that he recanted moments after making.
The case against Knapp was based on the presumption that the fire was started by spreading Coleman fuel from a can around the room in which the little girls slept, and then lighting it.
The defense held that the fire might have been started accidentally by the girls.
Hyder insisted throughout the two trials he conducted that the evidence showed the only fingerprints on the gasoline can were the smudged prints of adults and not those of small children.
Only recently has the defense learned that there actually were legible prints on the can and that they belonged not to Knapp but to his wife, Linda, who was also a likely suspect.
Hyder, however, stood by as Judge Charles Hardy granted Linda Knapp immunity from prosecution if she testified.
On the day before Hyder took the stand, the fingerprint evidence had been placed in context by the testimony of investigator Debbie Schwartz from the Attorney General's Office.
Schwartz told Hammond how she had ordered the Department of Public Safety to examine John Henry Knapp's fingerprints again and determine if they could be found on the can.
"Why did you do that?" Hammond asked.
"I was a police officer in Scottsdale for seven years," she said. "It is standard police investigating procedure to compare prints. It is always the first thing you do in every case."
Schwartz learned two things. The prints had already been compared at a previous date. And she learned something even more astonishing.
The prints on the can were legible and they belonged not to John Henry Knapp but to his wife, Linda.
"I called Hyder to ask if he remembered having the prints compared at the time of the trial," Schwartz said. "He said he didn't remember. I can't quote what he said exactly but he said he didn't remember."
Hammond pressed on about the fingerprints. "It doesn't prove anything that Knapp's fingerprints weren't there," Schwartz said. "But it's always a necessary investigative principle."
"No one was overjoyed at this development?" Hammond asked.
"Juries are very impressed by fingerprint evidence," she said. "To me, they often have no meaning, but a jury might be bothered. They might even make a different verdict based on that."
"Sir," Hammond says now to Hyder, "I'd like to talk to you first about the fingerprints in this case. You have always prided yourself on being a meticulous prosecutor?"
"Yeah," Hyder says.
"You knew that Knapp was fingerprinted prior to trial? You agree that it's basic practice to compare prints at the scene?"
"After Knapp confessed, I didn't think the can was that significant anymore," Hyder says.
"But did you ever have a comparison of prints done?" Hammond asks. "Are we to believe that during the years 1973 and 1974 you never asked for a comparison of the prints and never learned of any results?"
"That's right," Hyder says.
"You had a duty not to mislead the judge and the jury in this case, did you not?" Hammond asks.
"I would agree that a prosecutor in any case has that duty," Hyder shoots back.
"And you told the court that the only prints on the can were adult smudged prints," Hammond says. "Did you ever advise the court this statement was factually incorrect?
"When your fingerprint witness was on the stand, you never asked him if there were legible prints, did you?" Hammond asks.
"No, I didn't," Hyder says.
"You never asked him if he was able to identify the prints on the can, did you?"
"No, sir," Hyder answers.
"You knew that answer about the fingerprints was misleading, didn't you?" Hammond asks.
Hammond produces a copy of Hyder's trial notes. From it he asks the question:
"You had prepared to ask the witness a simple question: `What were the results of your examination?' But you didn't ask it, did you?"
The fingerprint witnesses didn't testify at Knapp's second trial. The first had resulted in a hung jury by a vote of seven to five for conviction.
Hammond's theory is that Hyder never turned the fingerprint evidence over to the two defense lawyers, Charles Basham and Chuck Diettrich. They were always under the impression that the only fingerprints found were smudged and unidentifiable.
If they could have argued to the jury that the prints on the can actually belonged to Linda Knapp, there was little likelihood that John Henry Knapp could have been found guilty.
Hammond presses Hyder about the stipulation entered into by both sides during the second trial agreeing before Judge Hardy that the can contained only "adult smudged prints."
"This stipulation offered by you contains three incorrect statements," Hammond says.
"You say the can was examined and that only smudged prints were found. You say the prints were smudged and comparable to adults prints. You say they couldn't be identified," Hammond says.
"Would you agree with me that Judge Hardy was misled?"
"No," Hyder shoots back, "I don't agree with that."
"But the judge then turned to the jury and gave them a totally incorrect picture of the evidence.
"When we say that there are no children's fingerprints and they are so smudged they can't be identified, that's not correct, is it?"
"No doubt, it's incorrect," Hyder admits. "I think the judge was mistaken."
"But wasn't he misled by what you told him?"
"In my opinion, it was an honest mistake made my myself," Hyder says. "I was under the impression that was the evidence at that time."
The courtroom was totally hushed.
"Do you recall what you said in your final argument in the second trial?" Hammond asks. "You told the jury that the experts found no juvenile prints on the can. You told them that the only prints found were smudged and unidentifiable.
"Was that incorrect?" Hammond demands.
"Yeah," Hyder says, "that was incorrect."
"Did you attempt to correct this mistake at the sentencing hearing?"
"No," Hyder says.
"Several years later at a resentencing did you try to correct it?"
"No, I didn't."
Hammond would not let go. He kept boring in.
"You have offered several explanations for the state of the record," Hammond says. "Let me ask you about them. First, you said the fingerprint expert misled you."
"That was a surmise," Hyder says.
"But then you told the fingerprint expert it was untrue you ever said he misled you?"
Hammond moves ahead.
"Your second explanation was that Chuck Diettrich, the defense attorney, had `snookered' you."
This unlikely scenario clearly meant that Diettrich had tricked Hyder into hiding the fingerprint evidence from the defense, thereby taking away evidence that could have won Knapp's acquittal.
"Is there any merit in that explanation?" Hammond asks.
"No," Hyder admits.
"The third explanation is that you said that both Diettrich and Basham reviewed the scientific evidence with you? Can you find any evidence of this?"
"There's nothing that I can find," Hyder admits.
"They said they never saw the prints," Hammond says.
"I'm aware of that," Hyder says.
"Does any of this cause you to doubt your testimony that the defense lawyers got the evidence in this case they were entitled to?"
"Not a bit," Hyder says.
"Would you agree with me that no matter what evidence the defense attorneys had or didn't have that no prosecutor should make a false statement?" Hammond asks.
"No prosecutor should ever do that," Hyder answers.
"You're aware that the only prints on the can were those of Linda Knapp?"
"I'm aware of that but finding Linda Knapp's fingerprints on the can wouldn't change my mind," Hyder says. "In my opinion, no comparison prints were made because they would have been meaningless."
Hyder wants it both ways. John Knapp had no alibi because the prints were not those of small children. But the fact that his prints are not on the can do not help convince Hyder that Knapp didn't set the fire. And the fact that his wife's prints are on the can don't indicate to Hyder that she might be the guilty party.
"It's always been said of Chuck Hyder that he was a meticulous prosecutor who doesn't like sloppy police work," Hammond says, "that he didn't like surprises in court.
"Do you really think that in a first-degree murder case you would ever have gone without making a comparison of prints on that can?"
Hyder hesitates. Then he blurts out:
"In my opinion, fingerprints would have been meaningless."
So meaningless, in fact, that the lack of them nearly placed John Henry Knapp in the gas chamber.
The stakes for both Hyder and Knapp could not be higher.
"You had a duty not to mislead the judge and the jury in this case, did you not?" Hammond asks Hyder.
"In my opinion, it was an honest mistake made my myself," Hyder says.
"You're aware that the only prints on the can were those of Linda Knapp?
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.