The Bad Guys’ Good Guy
Tom Henze finds something to defend in Arizona's most notorious murderers and corporate criminals
Published in 2008 Southwest Super Lawyers magazine
on June 13, 2008
Updated on March 4, 2020
Growing up as the daughter of one of Phoenix’s top criminal defense attorneys, Janey Henze would sometimes be frightened by the people her father welcomed into their living room.
“It would scare me when these people walked through the door and started talking about these horrible things they had done,” she says. Understandably so. In her dad’s storied 32-year career as the state’s go-to guy for accused criminals, Tom Henze has shaken hands with some of the Southwest’s most reviled and feared men.
Take, for example, Jimmy “The Plumber” Robison, accused of detonating the bomb that killed Phoenix reporter Don Bolles in 1976. The case dragged on for 15 years but Henze won his client four out of five “not guilty” findings and one dismissal.
There’s also Mesa gynecologist Stephen Bieterman, accused in 1988 of having sex with nine patients while they were being examined in his office. Despite the testimonies of all nine women and the doctor’s shifty courtroom presence, Henze’s strong closing argument nearly hung the jury. His client received a light six-year sentence.
Then there was Bishop Thomas O’Brien, accused in 2003 of leaving the scene of a fatal hit-and-run accident just two weeks after admitting his role in covering up child molestation by priests in his diocese. Henze mustered up enough jury sympathy that the shamed priest received four years of probation in lieu of prison time.
“Once you got to know them, you’d realize that these were just good people who got into a bad situation, or that there were motivating factors—drugs, alcohol, financial pressures—that caused them to behave the way they had,” says Janey, 31, who now works alongside her father as an associate at Gallagher & Kennedy, where the elder Henze has been a partner since 1992. “He’s really taught me that you have to be patient, and wait until you can recognize what those things are.”
Says Henze himself: “When I’m representing people accused of doing something terribly wrong, most of ’em are not the kind of people who are going to do bad things every time they get the chance. You learn to become very non-judgmental in criminal law.”
Henze admits he’d be welcome at more cocktail parties if he’d stick to white-collar criminal defense. “It’s easier to fit in at the country club,” he jokes. “[White collar] doesn’t have the same stigma as if you’re defending a guy spread out all over the papers as a rapist or murderer. But to me, the real criminal defense lawyers are the ones who do it all.”
The affable 63-year-old attorney is one of only seven recipients of the lifetime achievement John J. Flynn Award, presented by the Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice, and an elected fellow in the American College of Trial Lawyers. He likes to keep his hands full with cases others steer away from. “If you believe in the bedrock principle that says people are innocent until proven guilty, it’s important to society that everyone receives the best defense—even though it may be unpopular to defend certain people,” he says.
“Tom feels deeply about doing justice to the justice system, and doing all that he can within the law to make sure that the system operates properly,” says criminal litigator Larry Hammond of Phoenix’s Osborn Maledon, co-counsel with Henze on a murder trial. “His willingness to defend anyone, at the highest level, is what makes him so respected.”
He’s known for his composure. Even when he defended a client with connections to organized crime and the court had to appoint police officers to guard his home and family, Henze kept his cool. “He’s always been very calm,” says Janey. “Even with everyone else jumping up and down about the Mafia and all this other drama, he was saying, ‘Ah, this is ridiculous,’ and telling the cops to go home.”
The son of a bank manager who moved from branch to branch around the metro Phoenix area, Henze attended five different schools by eighth grade—and became an expert at befriending strangers. Eager to get in front of a crowd, he went immediately from law school at the University of Arizona—passing the bar in 1973—to a three-year stint as a Maricopa County prosecutor.
“It was the only job I could get where I could get into a courtroom,” says Henze, who considers trial work the epitome of a lawyer’s job—”like heart surgery to a doctor, or brakes to a mechanic.”
“My first day on the job, I walked over to the courthouse and tried a case,” he says.
Those were the “good ol’ days” to be a Phoenix lawyer, says Henze, who tried one of his first death penalty murder cases before future Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. His client was found not guilty. “There was a real camaraderie in the local legal community those days.”
Henze laments the introduction of mandatory sentencing laws (“deprives people of their day in court”), and the sheer volume of cases pushed through the system, which he feels robs lawyers of time to properly prepare. Nevertheless, Henze—who splits time between his five-acre home in Prescott, where he lives with his wife of 35 years, Kathleen, and his patio home in Phoenix, where he spends much of his weekdays—says he still loves coming to work.
“Criminal law is practiced on a higher level than civil—people going to the courthouse fighting over money,” he says. “So it’s always intellectually stimulating. Plus, in commercial crimes, you’re always dealing with something new: computer crimes, intellectual property offenses. You never know what your next case will be.”
There’s also the people.
“You do get to bond with your clients and their families,” he says. “When you’re thrown together by these cases, there’s always a pretty intense ‘people’ experience that comes with criminal law. Not that you’re looking for friendships with some of them!”
Even some of the killers he failed to keep out of prison have kept in touch. Henze recalls defending a man who was sentenced to death for a grisly New Year’s Eve slaying of a Phoenix family. The prisoner took to fashioning chilling postcards out of the death warrants he received in his cell, updating his date of execution.
“He’d take it, turn it over and write on the bottom: ‘Tom—We got ’em right where we want ’em now!’ and mail it to me,” Henze says with a laugh. “Very interesting sense of humor.” The client was never executed; he died in prison.
Henze’s most grateful client may be John Henry Knapp, who in 1974 was sentenced to death for the arson murder of his two children. Thirteen years later, in light of new evidence, Henze hammered away during a five-month trial—at the time, the longest criminal case in Arizona history—to earn Knapp’s release from prison on a plea bargain.
Janey Henze, who now assists her father on roughly half of the 15 to 20 cases he juggles at any given time, says she’s amazed he managed to tend to such demanding characters without showing the stress at home.
“When someone has a criminal problem, it is the most important thing going on in their life, and they demand you there at all times,” she says. “Yet he still found time to coach my little league team when I was growing up, and even today, my brother and sisters, cousins, friends and neighbors still call him whenever they need advice—and he finds time for them all.
“He’s the guy everybody turns to,” Janey says. “He’s everybody’s hero.”