As a judge, Ken Gnoss has overseen the trials of people behind some of Sonoma County's most gruesome crimes.
There was the Santa Rosa father who stabbed his wife 68 times before stashing her body in a toy box. Another involved a financially desperate Sonoma Valley youth who snuck up behind his grandfather and fired a shotgun into the back of his head.
Long before he was appointed to the bench, Gnoss, a former prosecutor, helped try one of the county's most notorious killers, Ramon Salcido, convicting him of murdering seven people, including Salcido's wife and two daughters, and landing him a spot on Death Row.
But Gnoss' high-profile courtroom experiences may provide little instruction for the next chapter of his career — presiding judge.
The 61-year-old Sonoma resident will enter a new frontier as he sets policy for the vast Hall of Justice — including a controversial “expressive activity” order — and represents the county in pursuit of state funding to build a new $140 million courthouse.
On top of administrative duties, the criminal justice veteran will take on several specialty courts, including one addressing civil evictions.
“I've done death penalty cases and murder cases, but this is a different area of the law,” said Gnoss, who began the two-year post Jan. 1. “I think it will be challenging. But it also gives me the ability to make positive changes for the court, with the help of the other judges.”
People who have known Gnoss during his three decades as a Sonoma County judge and prosecutor said he would have no problem finding his way.
“He's has good temperament,” said Public Defender Kathleen Pozzi, who was a courtroom adversary for many years. “He doesn't fly off the handle and he's very thoughtful. It's what makes him a very good judge.”
Greg Jacobs, a retired assistant district attorney, described Gnoss as having a rare combination of intelligence, motivation and integrity in his roles as lawyer and judge.