Tacoma, Washington- Superior Court Judge Michael Hecht spent the better part of five days listening as witnesses in his trial on charges of felony harassment and patronizing a prostitute talked about him, his character and his actions. On Monday, Hecht spoke for himself. Taking the witness stand in his own defense, Hecht emphatically denied ever buying sex from or threatening to kill anyone. The Pierce County judge testified that he’d never even seen two of the men who said they exchanged sex for cash – John Marx and Edward Smith – until they showed up in court to say that they had. Both gave similar accounts about what had happened between them and Hecht: Picked up downtown, taken to his law office for sex acts, paid and dropped back off. “Until he walked in here to testify, I had never seen John Marx, ever,” Hecht said in response to a question from his attorney, Wayne Fricke. He gave a similar response when Fricke asked him about Smith.
The judge admitted he confronted a young heroin addict in a downtown Tacoma alley in late August 2008 and asked the man, “Are you talking shit about me?” But he denied threatening to kill Joseph John Hesketh IV as Hesketh testified earlier in the trial. The clash with Hesketh is the basis for the harassment charge. “Never, ever,” Hecht said when Fricke asked whether he’d threatened Hesketh in any way that day. And he described his relationship with another male prostitute as platonic, not sexual as portrayed by assistant attorney general John Hillman, who is prosecuting the case. Hecht described himself as the “helpful grandpa type” in his dealings with Joseph Pfeiffer, giving the young homeless man socks, money for food and advice about how to better his lot in life. The judge testified that he never picked up Pfeiffer after dark, drove him to a North End law office and engaged in sex on the floor.
Hecht’s relationship with Pfeiffer is the basis of the patronizing a prostitute charge. “Isn’t it true that Joe Pfeiffer would often call you after business hours for you to come pick him up downtown?” Hillman asked during a contentious cross-examination. “No,” the judge replied. All told, Hecht testified for about two hours and 40 minutes. Observers jammed the courtroom – including an investigator from the state Commission on Judicial Conduct – and the temperature quickly rose to uncomfortable levels. The 14 jurors watched his every move, sometimes taking notes when he answered a question. His wife and three grown children sat in the front row and listened intently as Hillman asked questions meant to paint the judge as a liar or lecherous. At one point, Hillman asked Hecht about more than 200 phone calls during a six-month period between the judge and a man who police believe charges a fee to set up clients with younger men known to pose for nude photos. The judge responded that he talked to Patrick Graham for a variety of reasons, none of them related to sex. “He’s sort of a needy guy,” Hecht said of Graham, whom he met downtown some years ago. “If he burped, he’d call me and tell me he burped.”
Hecht occasionally mopped his brow with a tissue as the questioning went on and on. He explained away the perspiration as a symptom of his diabetes. Through it all, he stuck to his story. He never bought sex from the four men who testified previously that they sold it to him, and he never threatened to kill Hesketh to stop him from talking about their previous sexual relationship. That relationship never occurred, the judge added. Hecht said he never told his friends to tell Pfeiffer to leave town so the prostitution charge would go away, even though Hillman presented cell phone records that appeared to show a pattern that could suggest so. The judge admitted he knew some of his friends had been talking to Pfeiffer, who disappeared from Tacoma as the original trial date approached and finally was arrested on a material-witness warrant, but never told King County Superior Court Judge James Cayce about it. His frequent reply to questions from Hillman was, “No, I did not” and at one point he asked the assistant attorney general “How many times are you going to ask that?” when Hillman returned to the question about whether Hecht had ever paid for sex. The judge also found himself answering many questions about his association with the Antique Row area of downtown and his relationship with the homeless men who hang out there. Hecht testified that he has dabbled in antiques his entire adult life and worked as an upholsterer before becoming an attorney in 1988. He has many friends and business associates along Antique Row, he testified.
The judge said he visited the former Mecca adult theater and bookstore hundreds of times over the years to buy the chicken soup from a vending machine there – “it’s very good chicken soup,” he testified – and once in a while consulted with the Mecca owner about police raids on the theater and whether they were legal. Hecht also said he frequently hands out cash, clothes, food and his cell phone number to homeless people. He even hired some of them to work on his campaign for judge, he said. Hecht said he lives by a philosophy. “It’s real, real simple. I cannot change your life, but I can change your moment,” he testified. “And if I can change your moment, I feel that I have that obligation to do it. When I do that, I feel good.” Hillman would try to turn those words against him later. “You testified that people like … Joseph Pfeiffer, you helped them out because it makes you feel good, correct?” the assistant attorney general said. “Correct,” Hecht said. “Did you ever require anything from them that would make you feel good?” Hillman continued. “No,” Hecht said. About 3:45 p.m., the questions ended, and Hecht walked slowly back to the defense table. He gave his wife and kids a wan smile and sat down. His part in the trial was over. Fricke and Hillman will make their closing arguments today. Then the jurors will get their say. Even then, Hecht’s troubles won’t be over, regardless of the outcome of the trial. The Commission on Judicial Conduct also has brought the judge up on charges of violating the code of judicial conduct. A hearing on those charges, originally set for November, now is scheduled for February 2010. Adam Lynn: 253-597-8644 - firstname.lastname@example.org