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Michael Millman, champion of legal aid for the condemned, dies at 74

Michael Millman, champion of legal aid for the condemned, dies at 74
Michael G. Millman, founder and executive director of the California Appellate Project, has died at 74. (Matthew Millman)

Michael George Millman, who devoted his life to improving legal services for prisoners facing execution, died of pancreatic cancer Saturday at his Oakland home. He was 74.

Executive director of the San Francisco-based California Appellate Project for 30 years, Millman assisted death row lawyers with technical and legal advice and helped create a network of resources to ensure the condemned received professional legal help. "Michael Millman was a pillar of the capital defense bar, a hero to many, and a true gentleman," said California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye.

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The appellate project Millman headed was established by the state bar in 1983 as a nonprofit group to ensure poor people facing execution receive sound legal assistance in their appeals. Millman played a lead role in the group's creation and became its executive director in 1984.

"Michael was a profoundly kind and big-hearted man who dedicated his whole life to advancing social justice and, especially, to 'being the change we wish to see in the world' by daily acts of compassion and generosity," said Lance Lindsey, the project's administrative director.

Born July 9, 1939, in Brooklyn, N.Y., Millman grew up in Summit, N.J., according to his elder son, David. Millman was the only child of Sidney, a physicist, and Dorothy, a teacher.

Millman graduated from Harvard in 1960 with a degree in physics and obtained a masters in physics from UC Berkeley, his son said. Moved by the social justice activism of the 1960s, Millman decided to study law instead of science and graduated from Yale Law School in 1969.

He worked for the Alameda County public defender for about six years and then joined the Office of the State Public Defender before heading the appellate project.

Although personally opposed to capital punishment, "He was not an abolitionist," said Jonathan Steiner, who administers a panel in Los Angeles that screens and recommends appellate criminal defense lawyers for indigents in noncapital cases. Millman's goal instead was to protect the legal rights of the criminally accused, Steiner said.

"He was a brilliant man," Steiner said. "He was very, very warm. He liked to talk to people. His approach to the practice of law was much less combative and aggressive than some lawyers'."

David Millman recalled that even in the weeks after his father was told he had not long to live, he accepted a call from a death row inmate.

When prisoners were facing execution, "he always wanted me to understand who that prisoner was as a person, more than just a sum of what they had done or supposedly done," David Millman said. "He wanted me to know that there was depth and complexity and sadness … way beyond what you might read about them."

Millman is survived by his wife, Cynthia Taylor Millman, of Oakland; daughter, Dr. Laura Dillard, a pediatrician, of Moraga, Calif.; David Millman, a winery general manager, of Portland, Ore.; Matthew Millman, a photographer, of San Francisco; three stepchildren from his marriage to Cynthia; and 13 grandchildren.

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