Alumnus of the Month
Q&A with Marilyn Brenneman '79
After 30 years as a senior deputy prosecutor at the King County Prosecutor's Office Marilyn Brenneman ‘79 retired last year. Yet stepping down from the position has not meant the end of her legendary legal career. Brenneman is best known for her strong determination and commitment to taking on tumultuous cases. From murderers to arsonists, Brenneman has seen it all. Some of her most publicized clients include Martin Pang, who set a warehouse on fire, which led to the deaths of four Seattle firefighters, sociopaths Randy Roth and Steven Sherer, who murdered their wives, and Joel Zellmer, who was found guilty last year of drowning his toddler stepdaughter after taking out a life-insurance policy on her. The UW School of Law is honoring Brenneman this month for her tenacity for tough cases, even though, at times, they have put her in harms way.
What inspired you to be a lawyer?
I grew up in Georgia in the 1960s. Coming of age in a period of great turmoil, and promise, I noted that lawyers seemed to be leading the charge against injustice.
From Atticus Finch, Harper Lee's fictional lawyer in "To Kill a Mockingbird", to the amazingly brave and real Morris Dees, founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, lawyers were instrumental in sweeping aside institutional bigotry. I wanted to be part of a profession that had the ability to effect change of that scope.
You are known for your commitment to difficult cases, what attracts you to a case?
I was so fortunate to be a prosecutor with the Fraud Division of the King County Prosecutor's Office where I had the opportunity to handle a wide variety of cases. Some involved highly organized theft, others difficult to prove and/or high profile homicides such as the Pang case. The cases I came to really enjoy involved a lot of attention to detail and required determined focus to successfully prosecute. The advantage of that type of case is that it is always mentally challenging and amazingly rewarding when completed. It was, I admit, a really great feeling to investigate and prosecute someone who thought they had gotten away with murder.
Several of your homicide cases have been transformed into bestselling books by Ann Rule. What is it like to have your work published?
Let me begin by saying that Ann is immensely thoughtful with victims and witnesses. She makes absolutely certain that she protects their privacy by using pseudonyms and supporting their decisions.
Although I'm not too comfortable with publicity, the recognition for the detectives I worked with on these cases is more than well deserved. Ann, as a former policewoman, recognizes when investigators commit themselves to resolving a case in a way beyond the norm. They really appreciate her for that and so do I.
What is your most memorable case(s)?
The Geoduck Clams Case (at the time, the largest white-collar fraud case in state history)
An organized crime prosecution for the long term business theft and export of state resource by ostensibly "legitimate" businesses in 1989. Although the fact that it was geoduck clams being stolen amused the press to no end, the lost revenue for Washington State was millions of dollars. My two year investigation with the Washington Department of Fisheries, and subsequent prosecution of twelve defendants, individuals and businesses, stopped these thefts and opened up the industry, all to the economic advantage of Washington citizens.
State v. Randy Roth
The prosecution of Mr. Roth for the murder of his wife, Cynthia, for insurance proceeds. Roth drowned Cynthia in Lake Sammamish and attempted to stage it as an accident. This was his second heavily insured wife to die on a recreational outing. Roth's second wife Janis had supposedly "slipped" from a trail off Beacon Rock in Skamania County while hiking with him. The King County detectives on this case were amazing and the jury found Roth guilty of Murder One. This case showed that careful investigation and development of substantial circumstantial evidence, if sufficiently significant and carefully presented, will allow a jury to come to the correct verdict.
For current law students who wish to follow in your footsteps, do you have any advice or suggestions?
Know what you enjoy doing and let that guide you when you are making career decisions. As a lawyer you are likely to spend a lot of time working, so make the most of it by genuinely caring about the result. Finally, your integrity is the most important asset you will ever have, so keep it at all cost.
Now that you have retired from the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, what are your plans?
My husband and I are law partners and are representing clients. So far we love it!