Maleng, Norm (1938-2007)

  • By Patrick McRoberts
  • Posted 6/12/2007
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8180

Norman Kim "Norm" Maleng was King County Prosecuting Attorney for 28 years, during which he implemented legal reforms, mentored future judges and politicians, and made national news while prosecuting high-profile cases, including the Green River Killer (2003), the Wah Mee Massacre (1983), and the Goldmark killings (1985). Elected in 1978, Maleng was a moderate Republican in an increasingly Democratic county. Always drawing on his roots growing up on a small Washington dairy farm, he  managed to balance a tough-on-crime approach with a sense for the greater good of the community, a balancing act that led to perhaps his most controversial decision: to spare the Green River killer, Gary Ridgway, from execution in exchange for information on the 48 women Ridgway killed. He did this, Maleng said, to give families closure and arrive at the truth of the case. Although he ran for statewide office three times, he never made it, losing to more conservative candidates in the 1988 and 1996 Republican primaries for governor and to future Washington Governor Christine Gregoire for attorney general in 1992. But King County voters consistently supported him in his post as the county’s most prominent legal enforcer. He received nearly 97 percent of the vote in his last re-election in November 2006, seven months before his death at age 68 from cardiac arrest on May 24, 2007.

A Farm Boy Called Norm

 Norm Maleng was born September 17, 1938, to Norwegian parents, Norman and Margaret Maleng. As he often pointed out in speeches, he grew up on a small dairy farm near the rural community of Acme in Whatcom County, Washington. The values he learned on the farm, at church, and in the Future Farmers of America (FFA) were those that continued to guide him throughout his career. While on the farm, Maleng would get up early each morning to milk the cows, go to school, milk the cows again,  and then attend to his homework. He graduated at the top of his class of 60 students. His participation in FFA helped him become an effective public speaker and he won speaking competitions at the state level. At the time, he decided he wanted to be a either preacher or a lawyer.

He left Acme and his prize heifer, Lassie May, to go to the University of Washington in 1956. He found he had a natural ability for economics and pursued a degree in that subject. He joined the UW unit of the US Army Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC). After graduating in 1960, he entered the army as a second lieutenant and served at Fort Meade, Maryland. He liked the army enough to consider it as a career but he also considered getting a doctorate in economics or going to law school. “I decided,” he told an interviewer, “I did not want to wake up one day being 50 years old without having fulfilled my boyhood dream, so I left the army after three years and went to law school" (National District Attorneys Association profile).

A Lawyer Called Norm

Maleng entered the UW School of Law in 1963 and became editor-in-chief of the Washington Law Review. After graduating at the top of his class in 1966, he traveled to Washington, D.C., where he served as staff attorney for the Senate Committee on Commerce, chaired by Senator Warren Magnuson (1905-1989), a powerful Democrat from Washington State. This was an exposure to policy and politics that stayed with Maleng throughout his career. 

He returned to Seattle and entered private law practice with the firm of Preston Thorgrimson. Three years later, at the age of 32, he was hired by Christopher Bayley, King County’s prosecutor, to head up the Civil Division in his office. Maleng had been a volunteer on Bayley’s primary campaign of 1970 to unseat Charles O. Carroll, who had held the prosecutor’s office for 22 years but faced charges of corruption and political favoritism. According to Bayley, Maleng was recruited to join a team of reformers determined to de-politicize an office that had been run in an extremely partisan way, with the Republican Party screening candidates for professional positions in advance. As part of this team, Maleng agreed to work to restore more professionalism to the office.

As head of the Civil Division, Maleng also tried cases that paved the way for construction of the Kingdome, which opened in 1976. He negotiated leases with the Seattle Mariners and Seahawks. In 1978, when Bayley stepped down, Maleng was elected to replace him as King County Prosecuting Attorney.

A Reformer Called Norm

As prosecutor, Maleng built upon the reforming spirit of the Bayley tenure. He was the major force behind the Sentencing Reform Act of 1981, which standardized sentencing guidelines across the state, making it more likely that two people accused of the same crime would receive similar sentencing. It was, in Maleng’s favorite words, tough and fair. He also provided guidelines for why and when his deputy prosecutors would offer plea bargains. 

After a number of high-profile sex crimes in the 1980s, Maleng argued for a tougher approach to sex offenders, ultimately leading to the state’s policy of registering and sometimes confining them after they had served their sentences. Civil liberties advocates criticized this move but it also set a model that has been followed by other states. 

Concerned about domestic abuse, Maleng created the Special Assault Unit in his office, which was intended to improve effectiveness and reduce victim trauma in sexual assault and domestic abuse cases. This was done by assigning a single prosecutor to a see a case through from beginning to end -- a novel approach at the time. 

Although tough on crime, Maleng often took a broader view of what was good for society. As drug users filled up prisons in the 1980s and early 1990s, he saw that effective treatment could reduce the costs and hardship imposed by imprisonment. In 1993, he helped start the county’s Drug Court, which enabled those charged with drug possession to avoid confinement if they pursued an aggressive course of counseling and drug testing. This move, which Maleng Chief of Staff Dan Satterberg called a “classic Nixon-goes-to-China moment,” brought criticism from some conservatives but studies have shown that it reduced repeat offending and held down costs (Satterberg, King County Bar Association profile). 

Maleng also worked to help drivers with many traffic tickets, who might otherwise have faced prosecution, to pay off their debts and get their drivers’ licenses back. A former employee under Maleng said the prosecutor often told his team, “Our job is to do justice and that doesn’t necessarily mean a conviction” (Brunner, Seattle Times, May 26, 2007). 

His advocacy of reform continued to the very end. In 2007, he was instrumental in obtaining legislation to prevent journalists from facing jail time for not revealing confidential sources. This action earned Maleng a tribute from the Yakima Herald-Republic as a “friend of free press” (Editorial Voices, The Seattle Times, May 29, 2007).

A Prosecutor Called Norm

On February 18, 1983, a scene of horrific violence erupted at the historic Wah Mee gambling club in Seattle’s Chinatown International District. Three young Chinese American gunmen entered, opened fire, and left with tens of thousands of dollars. Fourteen people lay on the floor bleeding. Only one of them recovered and later testified in the three trials.

Norm Maleng presided over the trials, one much delayed, that led to convictions for the three gunmen. Willie Mak was at first sentenced to die on 13 counts of aggravated murder, but his sentence was eventually converted to life in prison. Benjamin Ng was given life sentences for murder. Tony Ng fled to Canada and, eventually, was extradited to Seattle, where he was convicted of robbery and assault and sentenced to 65 years.

Two years after the Wah Mee Massacre, Maleng successfully sought the death penalty for David Lewis Rice for the slayings of the Goldmark family on Christmas Eve, 1985. Rice, a white supremacist, mistakenly believed that Seattle attorney Charles Goldmark was Jewish and a Communist. He entered the house and handcuffed Goldmark; his wife, Annie; and their sons, Derek, 12, and Colin, 10. Rice then began to stab them with a knife. Although Derek survived in the hospital for 37 days, all would die. Despite the death sentence, Rice would appeal and eventually bargain for a life sentence in exchange for his confession.

A decade later, Maleng prosecuted Seattle business scion Martin Pang on charges of manslaughter in the January 5, 1995, warehouse fire that sent four Seattle firefighters to their death. Pang set the fire at the Mary Pang foods company warehouse in the International District in order to collect insurance money. Pang fled to Brazil but, after extensive negotiations, was extradited to Seattle, where he was sentenced to 35 years in prison.  

The Green River Killer case captured national attention like no other. The case involved one of the worst serial killers in American history and an investigation long gone cold. The first victim was found in 1982, but the suspect, Gary Leon Ridgway, was not arrested until 2001, when new DNA testing technology tied him to four of the victims. Maleng, a long-time supporter of capital punishment, faced a difficult choice of gaining a death sentence for those murders or obtaining a confession and the truth from Ridgway. After much soul searching, he chose the latter, and Ridgway was given life without parole after he pleaded guilty on November 5, 2003, to the murder of 48 women, 42 of whom had been attributed to the Green River Killer and six others who had not been so attributed.

"The mercy provided by today's resolution is directed not at Ridgway, but toward the families who have suffered so much, and to the larger community," Maleng said in 2006, according to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (Gutierrez, Johnson, and Pulkkinen, May 25, 2007). "The justice we could achieve was to uncover the truth."  

A Man Called Norm

Maleng lived in Magnolia with his wife of 33 years, Judy Maleng, a computer consultant. Their son Mark, 29, is a graduate student at Washington State University. In 1989, the family suffered tragedy when their daughter, Karen, 12, was killed in a sledding accident.

The loss of Karen left Maleng with a permanent sense of empathy for others facing similar bereavement. He often drew on this sense to commiserate with the families of crime victims. He would meet with them personally, more to show the human face of the prosecutor’s office than to go over next steps in the case.  

On May 24, 2007, he was attending a Nordic heritage event at the UW Center for Urban Horticulture when he collapsed. He was taken to Harborview Medical Center, where, despite efforts at resuscitation, he was pronounced dead at 9:11 p.m.

Maleng’s dedication to the pursuit of justice and his efforts to run a professional office free from partisanship were recognized in eulogies from leaders of all political stripes. Former rival Governor Christine Gregoire put it this way: “Norm was known by all who knew him as a fair, honest and thoughtful leader. ... For all who held public office, Norm was an icon. And for me personally -- despite our party differences -- he was a constant voice of reason and evenhandedness” (Johnson, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 26, 2007).

Sources: Editorial, “The Loss of an Icon,” The Seattle Times, May 27, 2007; Jim Brunner, “Maleng Leaves a Living Legacy,” Ibid., May 26, 2007; Jennifer Sullivan and Steve Miletich, “Longtime Prosecutor Norm Maleng Dies,” Ibid., May 25, 2007; “Editorial Views from Across the State,” Ibid., June 1, 2007 (http://seattletimes.nwsource.com); Tracy Johnson, “Maleng’s Legacy Remembered, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 26, 2007; Scott Gutierrez, Tracy Johnson, and Levi Pulkkinen, "Norm Maleng Dead at 68," Ibid., May 25, 2007; Chris Bayley, “Maintain the Justice Model Norm Maleng Perpetuated,” Ibid., June 1, 2007  (http://seattlepi.nwsource.com); "Biography," King County Prosecuting Attorney’s website accessed June 5, 2007 (http://www.metrokc.gov/proatty/nkm/bio.htm); Editorial, “Norm Maleng, A Man to Emulate, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 25, 2007; “In Profile,” May-June 2004, National District Attorneys Association website accessed June 5, 2007(http://www.ndaa-apri.org/ndaa/profile/norm_maleng_may_june_2004.html);  “Norm Maleng,” NW Newsource Death Notices website accessed June 7, 2007 (http://www.legacy.com/NWclassifieds/DeathNotices.asp); Historylink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, “Three robbers raid Wah Mee gambling club in the International District and kill 13 patrons on February 18, 1983” (by Walt Crowley) http://historylink.org (accessed June 6, 2007); Historylink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, “Right-wing extremist David Lewis Rice murders Charles Goldmark and his family in Seattle on December 24, 1985” and “Gary Leon Ridgway pleads guilty to murdering 48 Green River Killer victims on November 5, 2003” (by David Wilma)  http://historylink.org (accessed June 6, 2007);  Dan Satterburg, “Dedicated Prosecutor Keeps Swinging Away, Profile: Norm Maleng,” King County Bar Association website accessed June 10, 2007 (http://www.kcba.org/scriptcontent/KCBA/barbulletin/0605/profile.cfm).

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