A Washington State Court of Appeals panel has ordered a new trial for former Pierce County Superior Court Judge Michael Hecht, who resigned in 2009 after being convicted of felony harassment and patronizing a prostitute.
Appellate judges for Division I, in a decision released Tuesday, said “flagrant and ill-intentioned” misconduct by the assistant attorney general who prosecuted Hecht prevented the former judge from getting a fair trial.
At issue were photographs of Hecht that John Hillman showed the jury during his closing argument. The photos had the word “GUILTY” superimposed on them in red.
“There is no legitimate purpose for such images in a criminal trial,” the panel wrote. “We conclude that the prosecutor’s slides undermined Hecht’s right to a fair trial by creating the substantial likelihood of a verdict improperly based on passion and prejudice.”
The state Supreme Court in 2012 overturned another of Hillman’s cases for the same reason, and the appellate panel cited that case in making its decision on Hecht.
The appellate panel rejected many of Hecht’s other arguments, including that there was insufficient evidence to convict him, and said other issues he raised were not properly before the Court of Appeals.
Hecht on Tuesday said he was not prepared to make extensive comments on the decision.
“I’m going to wait another week or two to let it sink in,” he said. “It’s been a long five years. I lost everything between then and now.”
The state Supreme Court disbarred Hecht and forbade him from every again running for judge in the wake of his convictions.
Hecht was charged in February 2009 with felony harassment after a heroin addict who worked as a prostitute said the newly elected judge had threatened to kill him if he revealed allegations that Hecht had hired him for sex. Other prostitutes came forward to say Hecht had hired them, too, and the judge was charged with one count of patronizing a prostitute.
The Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office asked the Attorney General’s Office to handle the case to avoid any conflict of interest, because Hecht was a sitting Pierce County judge at the time. The Pierce County Superior Court also asked King County for help, again for conflict of interest reasons, and Superior Court Judge James Cayce was assigned the case.
A Pierce County jury convicted Hecht in October 2009 after hearing nearly six days of testimony. Cayce sentenced him as a first-time offender and gave him community service instead of jail time.
Hecht, who maintained his innocence throughout the trial and during the months leading up to it, appealed.
The state argued during the appeal that the images Hillman used during his closing argument were not inflammatory enough to warrant a reversal.
The appellate panel though otherwise.
Prosecutors have a duty to be fair to defendants and allow jurors to render judgments free from prejudice, the panel said.
“Moreover, the prejudicial impact of the word “GUILTY” was magnified by the fact it was written in capital letters, in red, and on the diagonal, obvious graphic devices for drawing the eye, implying the urgency of action and evoking emotion,” Appeals Court Judge James Verellen wrote for the unanimous panel. “This manipulation unfairly injected inflammatory extrinsic considerations into the argument.”
Janelle Guthrie, spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s Office, said Tuesday that a decision had not been made about whether the office would seek to retry Hecht.
“We’re reviewing the case and discussing our options,” Guthrie said.
Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist said he was inclined to let the Attorney General’s Office retain the case, as Hillman knows the case and has a working relationship with the witnesses.
Lindquist said his office would take a look at the case if the Attorney General’s Office decides not to retry Hecht.
“If they send it back to us, we’ll address that issue,” he said.
Adam Lynn: 253-597-8644