St. Petersburg Times Article - Pinellas Losing Prosecutor of Grimiest Cases

Pinellas losing prosecutor of the grimiest cases
Tim Hessinger has seen success taking on rapists and child abusers . Now he's moving to the defense side of the aisle .

By CHRIS TISCH
Published January 21, 2005

LARGO - For the last eight years, Tim Hessinger has prosecuted some of Pinellas County's most atrocious crimes against children. He has squared off in court against child murderers, pedophile priests and serial rapists. Hundreds of cases have crossed his desk . He has earned convictions in 34 of the 37 he took to trial. His eight years prosecuting such cases is a long time in a field that can burn out lawyers quickly. Hessinger, 40, will leave the State Attorney's Office in late February to open a law firm in St . Petersburg, where he will handle criminal defense cases. He has one more trial for the state : a man accused of abducting an 8-year-old girl and raping her.

"We're losing a very good prosecutor," said Bruce Bartlett, the chief assistant state attorney. Hessinger's wife is Kathleen Hessinger, a former prosecutor who was elected to a county judgeship last year. They have a 6-year-old daughter.

So how did Hessinger handle those awful cases for eight years? What effect did it have on his fatherhood? And what will he do if people accused of child murder or abuse ask him to be their lawyer?

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Hessinger came to the State Attorney's Office after graduating from the Stetson University College of Law in 1990 . After only two years, he was asked to co-chair a death penalty prosecution . The defendant was accused of killing an acquaintance's mother . A jury convicted him, though a judge sent him to prison for life .

Hessinger was promoted to a felony prosecutor and handled everything from felony DUIs to murder . In 1997, the county's top prosecutors targeted Hessinger for their major crimes division and asked him to handle the most horrible and complex cases involving children . These would attract top-shelf defense attorneys and media attention .

He quickly found himself in an ugly world of child molesters, violent parents and shaken babies. Two years later, Hessinger became the Pinellas prosecutor who handled most of the local cases under the Jimmy Ryce law . The law, which can detain violent sexual offenders who have finished their prison sentences, is named for a 9-year-old South Florida boy who was kidnapped, raped and murdered by a sexual predator in 1995 .

Hessinger took on 15 of those cases, winning new confinements on all but one . He also took on a case that dominated his time for three years . The awful life and death of 2-year-old Dustin Gee was one of the worst abuse cases he has seen .

Dustin's mother dumped him out of a stroller, burned him with cigarettes and strapped him in a chair so he wouldn't bother her during soap operas . His mother's housemate, Walter Morris, got ticked one night because the boy was blocking his view of the television . Professional wrestling was on . While Dustin's mother watched, Morris knocked the child to the floor, stepped on his head and kicked him in the stomach . Morris shook the boy, snapping his head . Then he poured hot sauce down the boy's throat. Dustin died hours later .

Morris' trial in 2000 lasted five weeks . Ten doctors testified . Morris' lawyers put up a good fight . A jury found him guilty of first-degree murder, and a judge sentenced him to life . Dustin's mother, Kimberly Gee, was sentenced to 111/2 years in prison for failing to protect the boy . Hessinger also won a conviction against Randy Morrow, a youth minister at a Clearwater church who sexually abused three teenage boys . Morrow was sentenced to 135 years in prison . Not all of Hessinger's cases involved child victims . He prosecuted Otis Wright, who is suspected of raping women in St. Petersburg over a 30-year span . Wright was found guilty in one rape and sentenced to life in prison . Hessinger took him to trial a second time and got another conviction, even though that victim had died two weeks after the rape .

"He's a tough prosecutor, but fair and honest," said attorney Daniel Hernandez, who defended Wright in both those cases . "He prosecuted with passion and diligence ."

Hessinger's colleagues say he has a gift for working with victims, making them comfortable even though they have to unspool their terrible stories during depositions and at trial . "These kinds of cases, the victims may be hesitant to talk freely and he always makes them feel comfortable and at ease," said Sgt . Stefanie Campbell, supervisor of the Crime Against Children Unit at the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office .

Though the crimes were terrible and the stress was heavy, Hessinger said the cases didn't affect his personal life . Although he sometimes brought case folders home to work on or talked with his wife about them (before she became a judge), the haunting effect of the cases stayed at the office . "I'm just able to encapsulate it," he said .

But there were a few times Hessinger found it rough going : when the children he saw victimized reminded him of his daughter.

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She was born two years after he began prosecuting people who hurt kids . On a few occasions, that really got to him . When he talks about it, his voice cracks a little.

"It's hard to talk about this," he said . "There were two cases that impacted me . One was when I went to an autopsy of a little girl who was the same age as my daughter and had similar characteristics . That was difficult . You have an autopsy and the child looks like yours, that's pretty hard . "Another one was where a guy videotaped himself committing a capital sexual battery on a child the same age and gender as my daughter ."

Hessinger acknowledges his experiences as a prosecutor have made him an over-protective parent . "It always seems it's a person of trust," he said . "It could be the police officer, the priest . Or it could be a teacher at the school ."

Still, he's had mixed feelings about some cases that imprisoned otherwise good people who acted irresponsibly for five seconds and shook a baby . Hessinger plans to apply that same type of empathy if someone accused of a crime against a child asks for his representation . He said that while his experience prosecuting those cases could cause him to reject certain clients, it also could prompt him to represent them .

"I just think there's a certain responsibility you get from coming from the inside," he said . "I'm not going to carte blanche restrict my criminal practice to any type of case . But I am going to put my experience to work on those cases that I believe are deserving of it, or are in need of it ."

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