Norm Maleng, King County prosecutor for 28 years and one of the most respected leaders in the state's criminal justice system, died Thursday...

Share story

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 representative.

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.”

Greg Nickels

Seattle mayor

“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.”

Janice Ellis

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 or not.”

Jackie Walsh

Defense attorney

“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 was.”

Lisa Marchese

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.”

Rob McKenna

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 almost unthinkable.”

Jenny Durkan

Democratic activist and Seattle attorney

“He represented the people of King County with honor. People all across King County will feel his loss.”

Dwight Pelz

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.”

Mike McKay

Former U.S. attorney for Western Washington

“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 addicts.

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 enforcement.”

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 questioned.

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. Christine Gregoire.

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 community.

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. Maleng.

“Even though he passed on tonight, his legacy will be everlasting,” Gossett said. “He was always so respectful of everybody.”

Norm Maleng

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 Prosecutor’s Office

King County prosecutor: First elected in 1978; re-elected seven times

Prominent cases:

• Convictions of Kwan Fai “Willie” Mak, Benjamin Ng and Tony Ng in the 1983 massacre of 13 people at a Chinatown International District gambling club.

• 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 general

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 U.S. Army.

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 greatly missed.”

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 life.

Sheriff Rahr said she spent Saturday night with Mr. Maleng and his wife in Bellevue. Mr. Maleng was being honored for his work on domestic violence.

“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.’ “

Times staff reporters Ralph Thomas, Brian Alexander, Sharon Pian Chan and Christine Clarridge contributed to this report.

Information from The Seattle Times archives is included in this report.

Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or; Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302