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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 -#8212; presiding judge.

The 61-year-old Sonoma resident will enter a new frontier as he sets policy for the vast Hall of Justice -#8212; including a controversial "expressive activity" order -#8212; 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.

"A guy like him, only a handful have come along in my 35-year career," Jacobs said.

Longtime Santa Rosa defense attorney Chris Andrian said Gnoss isn't afraid to do what's right, even if it is unpopular. In 2009, Gnoss was criticized for cutting nine years off a 12-year prison sentence he handed down to Andrian's client, Dylan Morse, a Central Valley man who killed another man and left another in a coma in a drunken-driving crash.

"That's the kind of guy I thought I knew," said Andrian, who said he encouraged Gnoss to become a judge when he was still a prosecutor. "He'd be man enough to admit when he made a mistake and correct it."

Gnoss will begin working on the top goal of getting a replacement for the 50-year-old courthouse right away. On Friday, he'll speak to members of a state committee charged with prioritizing courthouse projects and try to persuade them to place Sonoma County at the top of the list.

"I've been coming to this courthouse for 27 years," Gnoss said. "I would really like to see a new courthouse in my time."

Later this winter, he'll ask his peers to reconsider a controversial policy about public protests and a dress code at the courthouse. Last year, the bench banned demonstrations within 25 feet of the courthouse to reduce disturbances. But then-Presiding Judge Rene Chouteau rescinded the policy after people complained it was unfair. The courthouse has since been the focus of numerous large protests in the wake of the killing of 13-year-old Andy Lopez by a sheriff's deputy.

"It's a touchy subject," Gnoss said. "We certainly will take a hard look at it."

Other initiatives will be a new computer system coming online later this year that will make it easier to deal with traffic tickets. A larger case management system replacement also is in the works, he said.

Gnoss, who grew up in Novato and now lives in the Sonoma Valley, was inspired to pursue a legal career by his father, a Marin County court clerk.

He was a police officer for seven years in the Southern California city of Inglewood before finishing college at Pepperdine University and later getting a law degree at Western State University. He was a deputy prosecutor in Solano County for two years before joining the Sonoma County District Attorney's Office in 1986.

Gnoss rose through the ranks as a trial prosecutor and manager before being appointed to the bench by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2005.

He was assistant presiding judge last year and has been a supervising criminal judge.

Jose Guillen, the court's executive officer, said Gnoss will be the "motivator and the communicator" for other local judges while being the face of Sonoma County on statewide and budgetary issues.

"The role is important for diplomacy and team-building and creating a vision," Guillen said.

(You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com.)