It will be as tense a moment as anyone can ever remember in a Maricopa County Superior Court.

The following words will be heard by the spectators crammed into Judge Frederick Martone's courtroom on the thirteenth floor of the Central Court Building:

"We now call Charles Hyder to the stand." Hyder, a bulldog-tough prosecuting attorney and still a prosecutor with the U.S. Attorney's Office, will move to the witness box for questioning.

Seventeen years ago, Hyder received lavish praise for his work in getting John Henry Knapp convicted of murder in the deaths of his two small daughters who died in a fire in their Mesa home. Knapp was given the death penalty.

Knapp, the man Hyder convicted, will be sitting in front of the witness box at a table with his defense lawyers from the firm of Meyer, Hendricks, which has handled the case on a pro bono basis since 1980.

Larry Hammond, who is the lead attorney for Knapp at the hearing, will begin the questioning. Hammond is a tall, bespectacled man who dresses conservatively. His courtroom approach is deliberate. There are no pyrotechnics, no attempt at flamboyance. But Hammond's knowledge of the material in the Knapp case is encyclopedic.

Hyder is accused of being an overzealous prosecutor who bent the rules to obtain a conviction against an innocent man.

This is one of the most serious charges that can be placed against a prosecutor. It is not generally realized, but a prosecutor has not only the duty to convict criminals but also the obligation to turn over all evidence that may tend to establish their innocence as well.

Hammond and his associates have charged in their brief that "the prosecutor himself, aided by those who assisted him in the prosecution, chose to hide from view the evidence of Mr. Knapp's innocence." The fire broke out at 8 a.m. on November 16, 1973, in the one-bedroom Mesa home where John and Linda Knapp lived with their two children, Linda Louise, 3, and Iona, 2.

John Knapp was 27 and a Vietnam veteran who had been recently laid off from his job with the Continental Can Company and was driving a cab to make ends meet.

His wife, Linda, was 21 and a notoriously poor housekeeper. On at least one occasion, welfare authorities had removed the children from their home. At other times, Linda's mother had taken the children to care for them.

In the year before the fire, Linda Knapp had twice tried to kill herself.
Police believed at first that both parents were guilty of the crime, which they theorized was caused by spreading fuel from a Coleman can about the room where the children slept and setting it ablaze with a match.

John Henry Knapp was brought in for questioning and, according to defense lawyers, was coerced into a confession that he immediately recanted.

In bringing Knapp to trial, Hyder never bothered to turn over to defense lawyers evidence that would have been crucial in trying the case before a jury.

There was a recorded telephone call from Knapp to his wife, Linda, in which he explained that he confessed only to save her.

There was another telephone call in which a neighbor told Hyder several days before the trial began of Knapp's breaking down in tears at seeing photographs of his dead daughters. This takes on added significance because Hyder cited Knapp's lack of emotion 33 times during the final argument.

In addition, there are several other instances in which material was withheld, including the crucial fact that Knapp's confession that he set the fire had to be false because his fingerprints were not even found on the fuel can.

Hyder will undoubtedly testify that he has no knowledge that anything was withheld from the defense. He will cite incompetence on the part of defense attorneys.

That will be a difficult theory to prove. By this point in time, there are eight defense attorneys who have been involved in the case and two of them are now sitting Superior Court judges.

The importance of this case lies in the fact that it may settle a veiled issue that has festered for years between the defense and prosecution in Maricopa County.

Defense lawyers have always had an uneasiness about the conduct of prosecuting attorneys in general.

Prosecutors have so much power that it sometimes becomes intoxicating. Some prosecutors become obsessed by their rate of convictions and view it as a steppingstone up the ladder.

It is not uncommon to hear prosecutors boast about their win-and-loss record in courtroom trials. They lose sight of the fact that their jobs are merely to try cases to the best of their ability, not to embellish their personal records.

What the Knapp hearing will reveal is whether Hyder overstepped his bounds because he wanted to win more than he wanted justice.

If there is room for only one pullquote, please use the first one below.
Thanks. DJB.

Hyder is accused of being an overzealous prosecutor who bent the rules to obtain a conviction against an innocent man.

The case's importance may settle a veiled issue that has festered for years between the defense and prosecution in Maricopa County.

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Tom Fitzpatrick