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THE FIRE THIS TIME

"I've been waiting two days to get on the stand," Chuck Diettrich says.
He is a husky man in a dark blue pinstripe suit. He paces slowly up and down the nearly empty corridor on the thirteenth floor of the Central Courthouse in downtown Phoenix.

Diettrich, 50, is waiting to take his turn on the witness stand in Superior Court Judge Frederick Martone's courtroom. His testimony will be crucial in a hearing to determine whether John Henry Knapp should be set free or tried a third time.

"What are you doing these days?" he is asked.
Diettrich smiles nervously.
Once, he was one of the most aggressive trial attorneys in town. The pressure got to him. So did alcohol, then cocaine. He has been disbarred not once but twice. But there is a genuine spark of decency about him. In his wildest days, Chuck Diettrich never hurt anyone except himself.

His father was a symphony orchestra conductor, and Diettrich majored in English literature before attending law school at Salem College in Oregon.

Diettrich swallows hard. He smiles again, still all nerves. He lifts his chin, attempting to move his neck an inch higher up, freeing it from the tight collar of his white button-down shirt.

"I'm living outside of Payson in a cabin I built by myself about ten years ago," he says. "Guess I'd have to say my life is at a standstill right now." Diettrich ducks his chin in a nervous gesture. He has said all there is to say for now.

U.S. District Judge Charles Hardy, who presided over the Knapp case in Arizona Superior Court, twice recalled for Steven Brill of The American Lawyer how it brought on Diettrich's decline:

"I'd say this case had a lot to do with it. This is what did him in. A man just shouldn't get involved the way he did." In the present hearing, Diettrich is pitted against his old nemesis Charles Hyder, formerly Maricopa County attorney and now an assistant U.S. attorney.

No one has ever derived more seeming satisfaction from being tough and belligerent in the courtroom than Hyder, who made his prosecution of Knapp the cornerstone of his legal career.

A man with a permanently glowering expression, Hyder ran for county attorney by jokingly telling voters: "Elect your own Hit Man as County Attorney." Hyder has had his own share of troubles. The son of Fred Hyder, who was a Superior Court judge more than twenty years, he lost part of his right leg when he was struck by a falling power pole. Three years before the Knapp case, Hyder's ten-year-old son died of cancer. Several years after the Knapp case, Hyder's wife called him one day to tell him that he must hurry home. When he arrived, he found his wife had shot herself to death.

For years Hyder kept a scrapbook devoted to the Knapp case in his office. He would open the book with its photographs of the disfigured Knapp children and show it to visitors. He delivered speeches about it to legal groups. His conduct in this case made him proud, and he was called one of the best prosecutors in the entire country.

Now it hangs around his neck like a millstone. He has made himself unavailable to answer questions about his conduct for weeks.

Judge Hardy has also recalled Hyder's role:
"He definitely got too involved in this one," the judge said. "You could see the hate in his eyes." In addition to this hearing, Hyder also faces a complaint filed against him before the Arizona State Bar Association. There is a possibility he could not only lose the Knapp case but his law license as well.

The public rarely learns about complaints filed against lawyers before the bar association. In this case, the matter became public knowledge only because Hyder asked for county funds to pay for a lawyer to defend him before the bar association. Donald Daughton, a former Superior Court judge, was hired at $200 an hour, and he now sits in on the hearing in Judge Martone's court every day, listening to the allegations pile up against Hyder.

No prosecutor can face a tougher barrage of charges than Hyder faces. The lawyers who are lined up against him say that he railroaded John Henry Knapp to a cell on death row. They accuse Hyder of secreting a substantial body of evidence that could have set Knapp free years ago.

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Written by Larry Hammond and Jon M. Sands, the motion to dismiss for prosecutorial misconduct has a literary quality so devastating that it bears comparison with Emile Zola's J'accuse penned against the French army's conspiracy to ruin Captain Alfred Dreyfus in 1894 by framing him to a life sentence on Devil's Island.

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Tom Fitzpatrick