Words like “tenacious” and “straight arrow” jump easily to people’s lips when they talk about Thomas W. Sneddon Jr.
Although the descriptions are offered as praise, these same qualities can be viewed as liabilities when taken too far, and some associates of the Santa Barbara County district attorney say the veteran prosecutor occasionally verges on doing just that.
The dedication of Sneddon, who wants to put pop singer Michael Jackson behind bars, is well known in the affluent seaside county where he has been the top law enforcement official for nearly 21 years.
“He is the consummate professional,” said Sgt. Chris Pappas, spokesman for the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department.
Many colleagues and friends describe Sneddon as someone who doesn’t let go of a case if he believes a defendant is guilty. At Wednesday’s news conference, Sneddon scoffed at the idea he’s carrying out a vendetta against Jackson that began 10 years ago when he unsuccessfully tried to bring similar charges.
“When that case went to bed ... it went out of my mind. I haven’t given it a passing thought,” he said.
One former colleague questioned that view. “Saying he put it aside when he was done with it, I wonder about that,” said retired Superior Court Judge James Slater, who presided over the 1993 case. “If he thinks someone’s guilty and slipped away, he doesn’t forget that.”
A case in point played out earlier this year, when a man falsely imprisoned for a 1997 Santa Barbara slaying won his release. In news reports, attorneys and relatives of Efren Cruz, now 29, criticized Sneddon for not backing down from the case when evidence surfaced after trial supporting Cruz’s innocence.
“He’s tenacious, perhaps somewhat to his detriment,” Slater said. “I think once he reaches a conclusion, he sticks to it.”
But Sneddon does not make decisions in a vacuum, Slater said. “He has a group of senior deputies who review the cases. I know he listens to those people.”
Jackson’s sympathizers have accused Sneddon of grandstanding. But the performance the district attorney gave on a global stage Wednesday -- blunt, righteous, affable -- is the kind locals have seen since the late 1970s, when Sneddon handled his first high-profile murder case.
“I’ve known him since early in his career,” Slater said. “He’s a straight shooter. He thinks things through.”
Slater, well-known in politically active Santa Barbara for his Democratic leanings, hasn’t always agreed with Sneddon, who stands squarely in the Republican corner. But the former judge said he ruled consistently in Sneddon’s favor when Jackson’s attorneys sought to quash a search warrant and tried to suppress evidence, because the district attorney had his facts lined up. The case fell apart when the alleged victim refused to testify.
Law enforcement officials described Sneddon, who has been a criminal prosecutor in Santa Barbara County for 34 years, as someone who addresses legal challenges head-on and weighs facts evenly.
“He is not afraid to tackle cases that might be unpopular or difficult, and he is fair about prosecuting them,” said Sheriff’s Cmdr. Bill Byrne, a 27-year veteran with the department.
Sneddon’s courtroom persistence goes back to his early days as a deputy district attorney. In 1976, he prosecuted a well-connected Santa Barbara businessman charged with killing his wife by arranging a hit-and-run accident. After two hung juries, Sneddon insisted on filing the case a third time -- unheard of in California at that time -- and won a murder conviction.
In 1988, Sneddon prosecuted Robert Huttenback, the popular UC Santa Barbara chancellor, on charges of embezzling more than $100,000 from the university to improve his home. He won that case too.
Sneddon declined to be interviewed for this article and said at Wednesday’s news conference that he would not appear on talk shows. “I just don’t want to get involved in a situation where people are claiming I’m using this to toot my own horn,” he said.
Sneddon has a reputation as a family man whose life revolves around his wife and nine children. For many years, he has been a volunteer in youth sports activities, and he golfs and plays softball himself.
He also is well known in state and national legal circles, serving as past president of the California District Attorneys Assn. and as a vice president of the National District Attorneys Assn.
Acquaintances say Sneddon is competitive in and out of the courtroom. He still tries an occasional case that catches his fancy and plans to prosecute Jackson. Sneddon recently became involved with a child-neglect case, making sure that the youth in question was receiving proper care, a colleague said.
At the office, Sneddon sometimes lets his anger show, say those who know him well.
“Many people will tell you they have been at the receiving end of one of his tirades,” said one courthouse acquaintance, who asked not to be identified.
Sneddon’s sharp tongue was on display Wednesday when a Santa Barbara journalist asked whether Jackson was being given preferential treatment in being allowed to surrender to authorities.
“John, you’re the worst person to be asking that question,” Sneddon said. “You know in this county that we have traditionally done that for other people....We’re not doing anything different, and you know that.”
Times staff writer Steve Chawkins contributed to this report.