The Seattle Times
Longtime prosecutor Norm Maleng dies
May 25, 2007
by Jennifer Sullivan and Steve Miletich
Seattle Times staff reporters
Norm Maleng, King County prosecutor for 28 years and one of the
most respected leaders in the state's criminal justice system, died
Thursday night of cardiac arrest after collapsing during an event at the
University of Washington. He was 68.
Mr. Maleng was rushed by medics to Harborview Medical Center,
where he was pronounced dead at 9:11 p.m. Mr. Maleng had been
attending a Nordic heritage event at the UW Center for Urban Horticulture
when he collapsed.
Mr. Maleng's death sent shock waves through the community, where he was
praised as a towering figure who even-handedly shaped the criminal-justice
landscape in King County and throughout the state. He had been prosecutor
so long that it seemed no one had ever held the job before him.
"I'm still kind of in shock," King County Sheriff Sue Rahr said. "Norm
was the Rock of Gibraltar for King County. It's like the Rock of Gibraltar
washed into the sea."
Mr. Maleng, a Republican who was elected prosecuting attorney in
1978 and had won re-election ever since, was widely viewed as a thoughtful
and consummately professional prosecutor, even as he oversaw some of the
county's worst criminal cases, ranging from the Wah Mee Massacre in 1983
to the Green River murder case that culminated in 2003 with the sentencing
of Gary Ridgway.
In those cases, Mr. Maleng made life-or-death decisions on
whether to seek capital punishment. He alone made the decision, saying he
was the one who must take responsibility as the people's elected
"No person has had a more profound impact on our legal community and
system of justice. His absence in the public arena is almost unthinkable,"
Seattle lawyer Jenny Durkan said. "We lost a giant today."
Robert Lasnik, the chief U.S. district judge in Western
Washington who worked closely with Mr. Maleng for years as chief of
staff, praised Mr. Maleng as "the heart and soul of justice in this
community for more than 30 years."
"No one questioned his integrity or his honesty," said Lasnik,
who was driving to the Maleng home late Thursday night to be with
Mr. Maleng's wife, Judy.
Lasnik and William Downing, a King County Superior Court judge,
are among a host of young prosecutors Mr. Maleng brought into
office and helped rise to prominence in the legal community.
Mr. Maleng also was a major force on criminal-justice issues. He
was one of the architects of the state's Sentencing Reform Act, which
brought more uniformity to sentencing. He worked for tougher state laws
concerning sex predators and repeat offenders. He supported reducing
sentences for some drug crimes and expanding treatment options for
For years, Mr. Maleng had drawn no viable opponents, a sign of
his stature in the legal community and the unlikelihood that anyone could
defeat him in a county where his name was virtually synonymous with "law
His news conferences in major cases were legendary. He would emerge
from behind a blue curtain and, in a commanding voice, explain what action
his office had taken and why it had done so. While some of those
pronouncements were controversial, his integrity was almost never
Despite his achievements as a prosecutor, Mr. Maleng was less
successful in statewide races. A political moderate, he twice ran for
governor, losing in the 1988 and 1996 primaries to more conservative
opponents. In 1992, he lost a bid for state attorney general to now-Gov.
Mr. Maleng's collapse sent Rahr, Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske
and Dan Satterberg, Mr. Maleng's chief of staff, to Harborview, and word
of his dire condition quickly spread throughout the Seattle legal
Mike McKay, one of Mr. Maleng's closest friends and a former U.S.
attorney in Seattle, was with Mr. Maleng's wife Thursday night when his
death was confirmed. The Malengs' son, Mark, is a graduate of Washington
State University. A daughter, Karen, was killed in a sledding accident in
1989 at the age of 12.
Metropolitan King County Councilman Larry Gossett said that after Mr.
Maleng died, friends and family were led into the room to pay their
last respects. He saw Judy and Mark Maleng hug Mr.
"Even though he passed on tonight, his legacy will be everlasting,"
Gossett said. "He was always so respectful of everybody."
Mr. Maleng was raised on a small dairy farm near the community
of Acme in Whatcom County. He graduated from the University of Washington
in 1960 with a degree in economics and then served as a lieutenant in the
Mr. Maleng earned his law degree from the University of
Washington in 1966. He served as editor-in-chief of the Law Review. After
law school, he served as staff attorney for the U.S. Senate Committee on
Commerce, chaired by the late Sen. Warren Magnuson.
He then returned to Seattle, where he worked in private practice for
three years before being appointed chief deputy of the civil division at
the age of 32. After being elected prosecutor, Mr. Maleng
established a number of new programs, including a nationally recognized
sexual assault prosecution unit, a specialized homicide investigation and
prosecution unit, a victim assistance unit, and a comprehensive domestic
violence prosecution unit, including a system of advocacy for victims of
domestic violence at the district courts throughout King County.
"He's been a friend to me personally as I've gone through all of my
issues as chief of police," said Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske.
Said Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels: "This is a great loss. Norm was
unquestionably one of the finest public servants in our state's history
... His commitment to justice with humanity is unmatched. He will be
King County Executive Ron Sims said Mr. Maleng "served the
people of King County with integrity and honor, and it was my privilege to
have worked with him. He was esteemed in the legal profession and loved by
his friends and colleagues."
Mr. Maleng had long been a central figure in the Mainstream
Republicans of Washington, said Alex Hays, the group's executive director.
Mr. Maleng was a board member of that group.
"His competence, wisdom and good character allowed him to have a
remarkable term of service," Hays said. "He [was] a role model."
Said state GOP Chairman Luke Esser, "It's a tremendous loss in so many
different ways. A lot of people can't even remember that we had a King
County prosecutor before Norm Maleng. That's how much of an
institution he was."
Mr. Maleng was a devoted baseball fan. He regularly attended
Mariners games and would pull people aside to talk about the latest
successes or travails of the team.
In recent years, Mr. Maleng guided his office through some
difficult decisions, including striking a deal that spared the life of
"Green River killer" Gary L. Ridgway in exchange for his guilty plea to
killing 48 women and help in locating the victims' remains. Since that
decision, legal observers have argued, it's become more difficult to
justify and prosecute a death-penalty case in Washington state.
In December, Mr. Maleng announced he would not seek the death
penalty against Naveed Haq, the 31-year-old man accused of the July 2006
shooting rampage at the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle that left one
woman dead and five others wounded. Mr. Maleng cited Haq's history
of mental illness.
A month later, Mr. Maleng decided to seek the death penalty
against 25-year-old Conner Schierman, who is charged with killing his
neighbor Olga Milkin, 28; her sister Lyubov Botvina, 24; and Milkin's two
sons, Justin, 5, and Andrew, 3, on July 17 in Kirkland.
Mr. Maleng was regarded as restrained in his pursuit of the
death penalty. Jackie Walsh, a defense attorney who recently battled
prosecutors over their attempt to impose the death penalty on convicted
cop killer Charles Champion, said she had so much respect for Mr.
Maleng that she found it uncomfortable to call him by his first
name, as he'd asked during their negotiations.
At a party shortly after Walsh's father died, Mr. Maleng made
his way across the room to convey his sympathies. "I thought it was so
sweet and kind ... one of those old-school lawyers who remember what it's
like to be a professional and show respect whether the person is an
adversary or not," she said.
In interviews, Mr. Maleng called Winston Churchill his personal
hero. He said he read at least four newspapers daily and rarely watched TV
— admitting he should watch more.
In a 2005 interview in Washington Law & Politics, Mr. Maleng
described his management and hiring philosophy:
"What I want to know is what is in that person's soul or heart ... I
like to have people who have a smile on their face, an optimistic spirit,
a passion for their work and a passion about life." It was a philosophy
born of his rural roots, which he carried with him throughout his
Sheriff Rahr said she spent Saturday night with Mr. Maleng and
his wife in Bellevue. Mr. Maleng was being honored for his work on
"We were kind of laughing," Rahr said. "He was in a tuxedo. He said, 'I
hope there's no cameras here, because if anyone sees me in a tuxedo it's
going to ruin my image as a farm boy.' "
Reactions to Norm Maleng's death
"He was like a father to me. It was just a wonderful friendship. He was
my role model and my mentor."Sue Rahr
King County sheriff
"He was instrumental in reforming our criminal-justice system and
helping child victims of sexual assault."
"He was an icon to prosecutors. He stood for fair, balanced, apolitical
prosecution. As a relatively new prosecutor, I cherished his opinion, his
guidance and his advice."
Snohomish County prosecutor
"He was one of those old-school lawyers who remembered what it's like
to be a professional and show respect, whether the person is an adversary
"When I think of Norm, I just think of a compassionate heart. ... I did
a lot of homicide cases, and he made it a point in homicide cases to meet
with the families. ... His heart and his generosity marked who he
Former King County deputy prosecutor
"Norm was a mentor and a friend for so many of us in law enforcement
... When I ran for attorney general, he was one of the first people I
turned to for advice and support."
State attorney general
"We lost a giant today. ... He was a genuinely good man, who tried to
do good his whole career. No person has had a more profound impact on our
legal community and system of justice. His absence in the public arena is
Democratic activist and Seattle attorney
"He represented the people of King County with honor. People all across
King County will feel his loss."
State Democratic Party chairman
"His memory will live on for decades with all of us who have learned
from him and tried to live our lives the way he did."
Former U.S. attorney for Western Washington
Birthplace: Acme, Whatcom County
Education: Graduated from the University of Washington
in 1960; UW Law School, 1966
Early legal career: Served as staff attorney for the
U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce; worked in private practice for three
years; appointed chief deputy of the civil division of the King County
King County prosecutor: First elected in 1978;
re-elected seven times
• Convictions of Kwan Fai "Willie" Mak, Benjamin Ng and Tony Ng in the
1983 massacre of 13 people at a Chinatown International District gambling
• Successfully sought the death penalty against David Lewis Rice for
the Christmas Eve 1985 murders of Seattle attorney Charles Goldmark, his
wife, Annie, and their sons Derek and Colin. After years of appeals and
reversals, Rice pleaded guilty to the slayings in 1998 in exchange for a
life sentence without the possibility of parole.
• Conviction of Martin Pang for setting a 1995 warehouse fire that
killed four Seattle firefighters.
• Struck a deal in 2003 that spared Green River Killer Gary Ridgway
from the death penalty in exchange for his guilty plea to killing 48 women
and helping find the victims' remains.
Other political campaigns: Sought the Republican
nomination for governor in 1988 and 1996; ran for state attorney
Times staff reporters Ralph Thomas, Brian Alexander, Sharon Pian
Chan and Christine Clarridge contributed to this report.