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Richard Hecht, 1930 - 2008

A key figure in L.A. County D.A.'s office

March 20, 2008|Valerie J. Nelson | Times Staff Writer

Richard Hecht, who was a leading figure in the Los Angeles County district attorney's office, overseeing most cases for years and helping to found its organized-crime unit in the late 1960s, died Saturday at his home in Santa Monica, his family said. He was 77.

A cause of death was not released.

He also played a role in the 1962 arrest and subsequent trial of comedian Lenny Bruce on obscenity charges when future Sheriff Sherman Block, then a sergeant in the department, sought his counsel on whether Bruce's routine at the Troubadour nightclub in West Hollywood was obscene under the law. Hecht sat through a show -- and said yes.

In 1973, Hecht headed the local investigation into the break-in at the Beverly Hills office of psychiatrist Daniel Ellsberg, who had made public the Pentagon Papers, a secret government study on the Vietnam War. The case became part of the Watergate scandal and was tried in federal court.

In the district attorney's office, Hecht was "a stabilizing force, a really wonderful guy," said John Van de Kamp, who was district attorney from 1976 to 1982 before serving as state attorney general. "Dick was the go-to guy for advice."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, March 22, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
Hecht obituary: The obituary in Thursday's California section of Richard Hecht, who served in the Los Angeles County district attorney's office, said he headed the local 1973 investigation into the break-in at the Beverly Hills office of psychiatrist Daniel Ellsberg. Ellsberg was a patient of the psychiatrist.

Ira Reiner, who was district attorney from 1984 to 1992, called Hecht "the bricks and mortar" in an office "where it's always about managing problems. Without exaggeration, he solved every problem he was brought in on."

Among the many cases Hecht became involved in was the successful prosecution of 20 college militants at San Fernando Valley State College, now known as Cal State Northridge. The precedent-setting charges arose from a 1968 campus disorder that included taking faculty members hostage.

A Times editorial praised the verdict as "a landmark" because student activists had been found guilty of conspiracy charges for the first time, which provided "a new weapon against campus militants."

His other major cases included the killings of two Black Panther party members at UCLA in 1969 and the theft of $660 million in trade secrets from IBM in 1973.

An aerospace engineer turned lawyer, Hecht joined the district attorney's office in 1961. He was known as "a thoughtful and persuasive trial attorney" with an encyclopedic mind for legal decisions, Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said in a statement.

As was typical, Hecht gave a measured response when Block asked him "Whadaya think?" after they watched Bruce's obscenity-laced show.

"I was deliberately slow in reacting," Hecht recalled in the 2002 book "The Trials of Lenny Bruce." "I finally concluded that this was an obscene performance under the law."

Hecht testified at Bruce's high-profile trial; a colleague was prosecutor. The trial ended in a hung jury.

In an audio interview that accompanies the book, Hecht partly explains the prosecution of Bruce by saying, "It was a different world at that time."

Richard William Hecht was born Dec. 5, 1930, in New York City to salesman Harry Hecht and his wife, Lillian.

After serving in the U.S. Marine Corps in the early 1950s, Hecht studied engineering at UCLA. In 1960, he graduated from what is now Southwestern Law School and returned to teach for years.

At the district attorney's office, his positions included supervising a division established in 1968 that was initially known as the civil intelligence and organized-crime unit. In 1974 he became director of the bureau of special operations, and for almost 15 years oversaw most of the cases that passed through the office.

Hecht retired in 1993.

Often described as towering, Hecht was 6 feet 6 and had a lively sense of humor, said John Lynch, head deputy district attorney of the Airport branch office.

"Dick was the only guy I know who did not want to be chief deputy and could have been," Lynch said. "But he didn't need to be; he was probably as powerful as anyone in the office."

Hecht is survived by his wife of 44 years, Carolynne; a son, James; a sister, Marilyn; and two grandsons.

A funeral Mass will be held at 10 a.m. Wednesday at St. Monica Catholic Church, 725 California Ave., Santa Monica.

Instead of flowers, donations may be made to the Santa Monica High School scholarship fund, Attention: Catherine Baxter, 601 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica, CA 90405.


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