Marteen Miller, a longtime Sonoma County public defender who represented some of the most despicable figures in North Coast history, died Saturday, two weeks after suffering a stroke. He was 84.
Miller began as a law clerk in the Sonoma County Public Defender’s office in 1961 and headed the office from 1966 until he retired in 1995. Among the perhaps thousands of indigents and others that Miller defended during his 33 years in the courtroom was winery worker Ramon Salcido — who was convicted of killing seven people including his wife and two children — and New England Mafia hitman-turned-government-witness Joseph Barboza.
With his characteristic shock of white hair and cowboy boots, Miller has been described as a flamboyant and dogged defender in the courtroom and in his private life as a raconteur who loved to party and found friends in all corners.
Miller was “dangerous” in the courtroom, said former District Attorney Mike Mullins, who opposed Miller in court on many occasions including at the hearing where Miller convinced a judge to release prominent businessman Ernest ‘Kentucky’ Pendergrass, who would then go on to kill his ex-girlfriend.
“Very dangerous because he was persuasive and could look a jury in the eye and make them believe the most outrageous defenses,” said Mullins.
Miller headed the office during its early days of whiskey bottles in drawers and, some said, pin-up girls on the wall. He was among the last in a good-old boy network in the county who didn’t shy from maneuvering inside the system to benefit his high-profile clients. While that in part typified his leadership, it also helped spur a change to a more by-the-book environment in the office today.
Miller is also credited with starting to hire Spanish-speaking lawyers to better represent clients and serving as a mentor to some of the top figures in the criminal justice system today in Sonoma County, including Public Defender Kathleen Pozzi and Judge Jamie Thistlethwaite.
“He was a completely unique individual who in his heyday could not be beat as a criminal defense attorney,” said Thistlethwaite, who was hired by Miller in 1977. “He was innovative and dedicated and he made the public defender’s office what it is today.”
Pozzi, who was appointed head of the Public Defender’s Office in 2013, said Miller took an interest in her education in high school and said he’s the reason she studied law. Pozzi has followed in his footsteps from the University of San Francisco law school, to his teaching position at Empire School of Law and into her current position.
“There’s no other person even remotely like him, he’s incomparable,” Pozzi said. “Marteen was very, very flamboyant, he was like a diamond in the courtroom, he glowed, he had a way with words.”
The Pendergrass case in 1981 was a turning point for Miller’s career and, some say, also challenged those in Sonoma County’s criminal justice system to confront cronyism.
Miller knew Pendergrass — a one-time grand juror, fair director and well-networked political candidate — on a personal basis and, as his lawyer before the murders, agreed to a judge’s demands that Miller oversee Pendergrass’ release on the condition he take a medication to control his alcohol abuse.
After his release, Pendergrass, 59, drove to his ex-girlfriend Rosemary Edmonds’ house and shot her through a window as she sat down for dinner. A shootout ensued and a family friend shot her husband Rickey Edmonds by mistake. Pendergrass was convicted of both homicides and a political storm clouded Miller’s career.