By Robin Franze | The Oregonian | August 10, 2003
Victor and Christi Gomez never needed a criminal defense lawyer in 20 years of running an upholstery shop and raising a family in Richland, Wash. But on a frantic Saturday last October, they left a message with Stephen Houze's answering service: Their 16-year-old son, Dustin, had just shot a Portland police officer in the head.
Later that day, the lawyer -- known for representing high-profile clients from NBA player Damon Stoudamire to wealthy car dealer Scott Thomason -- phoned them back. He was in New York, being inducted into an exclusive trial lawyers club. But he'd meet with them Sunday night at his office in downtown Portland. And in the meantime, he'd make sure investigators knew that Dustin Gomez, shackled to a hospital bed with several bullets in him, had nothing to say.
Five months later, after meeting with Dustin in jail and loaning him philosophy and literature books to study, Houze sealed a deal with prosecutors for Dustin to serve 7-1/2 years in a youth prison. He would be released when he was 23, not as an old man, as his father had feared.
It was a typical performance for Houze, 57. Friends say he often takes cases where he sees the possibility of redemption. And he tells clients facing lengthy prison sentences that the best measure of a man is what he does after he stumbles. As in so many of Houze's cases, including last week's surprise guilty plea by terror suspect Maher ""Mike"" Hawash, the deal was cut behind closed doors before trial.
Victor Gomez says it cost a lot of money to hire Houze -- ""enough to take your whole house."" But he doesn't regret going into debt. ""You could just see he knew his way around -- how to approach key people. . . . He took a personal interest in Dustin.""
Houze's success in the politically sensitive Gomez case didn't endear him to the Portland police, some of whom have also used Houze as a lawyer. Officer George Weseman Jr., who was seriously wounded by Dustin Gomez, says ""our union took it pretty personally that he represented this guy. ""
When Christi Gomez met Houze, she expected someone tall and dark. Houze turned out to be a different sort entirely: 5-foot-7, unassuming, with a graying ring of hair and intense ice-blue eyes. He put her immediately at ease.
Unlike famous and flamboyant criminal attorneys such as Gerry Spence or Johnnie Cochran, Houze is publicity shy. He doesn't talk to reporters about himself. He wouldn't talk to The Oregonian for this story, other than to fill in a few pieces of his biography.
Those who know him well -- attorneys, prosecutors, judges and private investigators -- say he's a complex man: highly principled, intelligent, and driven by a ferocious energy that intimidates his adversaries in the courtroom.
Exactly what drives Houze is difficult to know. But friends say, though he makes a good living and drives a Porsche, his motivation has never been financial gain. On occasion, they say, he has been known to reduce his fee -- or perhaps waive it -- for criminal defendants he feels a responsibility to help. But he tries to keep these acts private, not wanting to flaunt good deeds or swamp his own office with the accused.
Sometimes a story gets out anyway: In 1985, Houze represented a teenage girl who confessed to a lesser role in the stabbing death of a man, even though she had no money, according to former Portland police detective C.W. Jensen. The girl pleaded guilty and avoided prison. She went on to earn a college degree, get married and have children -- what Jensen calls one of Houze's ""fairy tale"" stories.
""He believes in people,"" Jensen says. ""He had the ability to see the good in someone that I didn't see. . . . It changed my opinion of defense attorneys.""
""He's got one speed -- fast forward,"" says Jim Hennings, who hired the 26-year-old Houze straight out of Vanderbilt University Law School in 1972 to work at the fledgling Metropolitan Public Defender's office. ""He doesn't burn out -- he's always refreshed and enthused.""
For most of his 30-year career, Houze has worked in private practice, without partners. But it was no accident, friends say, that he started his career in the public defender's office in Portland, where he spent 3-1/2 years. He drove across the country in a beat-up Volvo, a freshly minted lawyer with shoulder-length blond hair, a walrus mustache and a passion for representing people with no money.
""He was great to be around, had a very good sense of humor and was phenomenally intense,"" recalls Hennings. Houze worked with a group of young lawyers who matured into leaders in the local legal community, many going on to circuit and federal judgeships. ""He handled clients extremely well. Juries liked him, even with his long hair.""
Houze's first big case was defending an accused killer in a trial that rocked the Northwest because of the brutality of the crime. A couple and the two young boys they were babysitting were bludgeoned to death with a hammer in March 1974. Three of the victims were bloodily slain in their beds in a quiet southeast Portland home.
Colin Hockings, a 30-year-old Native American shipping clerk, was Houze's client.
Photos of the notorious trial show a clean-cut Mike Schrunk, then a young prosecutor, standing next to decidedly mod Houze decked out in plaid pants.
Houze was a passionate and cunning defender. He raised enough legal issues at the first trial to win the defendant a second on appeal. The case would help catapult his career.
But ultimately two juries would side with Schrunk, who had fingerprint evidence, incriminating witness testimony and horrific autopsy photographs.
The jury convicted Hockings and he was sentenced to four life terms in prison.
""We were baby lawyers, with too many bodies,"" recalls Schrunk, who has been Multnomah County district attorney for 22 years. ""Houze was very, very good. A tenacious adversary.""
Stephen Houze, in charcoal pinstripes, adjusts the half-glasses on his nose and peers over them intently at the young police officer he's been cross-examining.
He's at a preliminary hearing held earlier this spring, and the uncomfortable witness on the stand is learning firsthand what it is like to face Houze in a courtroom. Houze's client, seated beside him in an orange-and-white jail uniform, has been accused of shooting his wife and trying to make it look like a robbery.
Houze wants to know about a sedan that was spotted on the road near the man's house that night.
""To your knowledge,"" Houze asks the officer pointedly, ""has anyone in law enforcement made any effort to identify that vehicle, or whether it belonged to a residence in the area or to a stranger?""
The implication: Maybe it belonged to the real killer.
""I didn't,"" the officer says softly. Houze cups his hand to his ear as if he can't quite make out what the officer is telling him. After a few minutes of this cat-and-mouse game, Houze glances at the clock, switches gears. He wants to talk about how his client was treated in the early minutes of the police investigation.
""When you took him out of the house, he had no gloves, no coat, no sweater -- what did you do to protect him from the cold?"" Houze asks, indignantly. The implication: Police had already assumed he was the culprit.
Almost angry: ""Did anyone put pants on the man?""
Cincinnati-born Houze didn't inherit his cross-examination skills. There were no lawyers in his family, sources say, but he did have a father who set a very high standard for his six children.
William Houze was not only a sought-after human resources expert, but an accomplished jazz pianist, war pilot, author, scholar and Mensa member. Stephen Houze's daughter, Paige DeLacey, says his childhood taught him to be self-reliant.
""The values my father grew up with were that you earn your keep, and you take care of yourself,"" says DeLacey, the first of Houze's three children, by an early marriage.
Perhaps because of his father's example, young Stephen hustled early, selling waffles at the county fair and later unloading trucks at the dock to help pay for a political science degree at Brown University.
""I think winning was everything he ever thought about,"" says Pat Mancuso, Houze's high school football coach in Ohio. Despite his small size, Houze played quarterback and defensive back. ""And what he lacked in size, he made up for with determination. He was a scrapper, a fighter. . .. all go-go-go.""
He was also a natural debater and by age 12 was already entertaining the idea of becoming a criminal defense lawyer after reading a story about a colorful attorney in the Cincinnati Enquirer.
Later, while Houze was a law student at Vanderbilt, Jim Neal, the Watergate prosecutor-turned-high-profile defense lawyer, would become a role model: Defense lawyers, Houze decided, could turn someone's personal disaster into something noble, or at least more hopeful.
Today, Houze can pick and choose his cases. He doesn't hesitate to take on a controversial client. Last week he negotiated a plea bargain for accused Portland terrorist Maher ""Mike"" Hawash, who got a maximum 10-year sentence instead of possible life. If Houze finds a case intellectually challenging or a client worth saving, he'll take it on.
While some folks may have a hard time understanding how Houze -- or any lawyer -- could defend someone accused of murder or paying to have sex with a child, prosecutors value what a great lawyer like Houze brings to a case. With him, they know they've got a well-matched fight -- they don't have to pull any punches. If they win with Houze on the other side, a conviction looks that much stronger. And without guys like Houze, they say, the nation's adversarial system of justice couldn't exist.
Yet as skilled as Houze is in the courtroom, many of his victories play out quietly behind the scenes, where he's known as a master negotiator and a genuinely nice guy. Not only does he know everyone who is important to know, prosecutors are aware of Houze's unusual ability to see and capitalize on the strengths and weaknesses in a case. That makes them especially motivated to make a deal to avoid going to trial against him.
Norm Frink, chief deputy district attorney for Multnomah County, says Houze is on the short list of lawyers he'd recommend hiring. ""If you can scrape together the money, you've got to,"" he says.
And because of his reputation, prosecutors can negotiate with the confidence that Houze will lay his cards on the table. He does what he says he's going to do.
In 30 years of law practice, Houze has notched only four complaints in his disciplinary file -- all deemed unfounded.
""To me, he's one of those gentlemanly, scholarly guys that has a tremendous amount of compassion, and you can see it and hear it in his voice,"" says Stacy Heyworth, a senior deputy district attorney for Multnomah County. ""He's dogged when it comes to researching things, and he zealously represents clients without being a zealot.""
Bill Williams, a former Multnomah County prosecutor, tells another kind of Houze story, about the time the two of them were on opposite sides of a murder trial where a mother was accused of killing her 4-month-old infant. Houze argued insanity. The jury didn't buy it -- a courtroom loss that Houze felt deeply. ""Helen and I were driving back to Portland,"" Williams says, referring to himself and a co-prosecutor, ""and before we even reached the office, Steve had faxed a letter to our boss complimenting us on the case. I still have it. How often does that happen?""
The 11th-floor downtown Portland office Houze designed himself is low-key but artful, with its single-door entry, a small sign bearing his name and a mixture of Asian objects and black-and-white prints reflecting a long-time interest in photography.
Antique globes and a model of the solar system decorate his inner sanctum. His personal phone is mounted on the wall several paces from his roll-top desk, so he can talk the way he likes to talk -- standing up, as if to argue a point in court. He hates to waste time. Hates to sit still. Hates to lose.
""Getting to the office is like jumping on a train moving 60 mph,"" says Chic Preston, Houze's longtime investigator. He says he works for a man who wants to know the answers before he begins the cross-examination. If the prosecution has a fingerprint expert, Houze has been known to bring in his own from Scotland Yard to counter it -- as he sometimes says, ""You can't fight City Hall with a ham sandwich.""
In last year's scandal in which auto-pitchman Scott Thomason was accused of hit and run, Houze's investigation produced a video of the victim easily turning his head from side to side. Thomason got community service.
Houze's life revolves around the work he loves; a family that includes his wife, Susan Svetkey, a Multnomah County family court judge, a son, two daughters and two grandchildren; and a small, intensely loyal group of friends, many of whom got Houze's permission before agreeing to be interviewed for this story.
He's an avid runner; enjoys lecturing to students when he has the time; and, when at home, often volunteers to run the family errands. ""He's not good at just hanging around,"" says his daughter, DeLacey. ""You see this guy with a broom a lot -- he loves cleaning.""
One of the greatest moments of his life was taking his war pilot father to Europe to celebrate the 50th anniversary of D-Day. Talking to his children and grandchildren about their interests and lives has also been a priority.
""We joke about big dad talks about some topic in life -- 20-minute lectures on why something is important, why you do it,"" DeLacey says. Laughing, she adds: ""It can be exhausting.""
Last week, with terrorist-suspect Hawash at his side, Houze stood in the wood-paneled courtroom of U.S. District Court Judge Robert E. Jones, the same judge who presided over Houze's first big murder trial, and received the compliment of a career.
Jones told Hawash he shouldn't even think about appealing his conviction on the premise Houze hadn't done his job -- his skills were too well-known. ""You have had the highest level of assistance,"" Jones said. Houze kept his hands clasped in front of him, his eyes on the defense table.
His greatest ambition, according to friends, is to keep doing exactly what he's doing now, only better. DeLacey expects her dad to work forever. ""He might be 90, and handling only one case, but it's such a part of who he is,"" she says.
Former partner Wendell Birkland agrees. ""Sometimes lawyers get beaten down and despondent, but Steve takes a case, works hard, does the job, and then he does it again,"" Birkland says. ""The Rolling Stones do rock 'n' roll, and Stephen Houze does criminal defense.""