Tom Sneddon, the no-nonsense, tough-talking Santa Barbara district attorney who served five terms without any credible opposition, died of cancer November 1 at the age of 73. While news reports of Sneddon’s passing highlighted his zero-for-two record prosecuting singer Michael Jackson on child molestation charges, his career is much harder than that to encapsulate.
Sneddon was famously quick-tempered and combative as a public figure, but his office was singularly stable and calm compared to other district attorneys’ offices throughout the state, notorious as hotbeds for political infighting. Sneddon’s managerial genius transcended his clear status as office alpha dog. He either inherited or hired a number of talented and peculiar attorneys, and he saw fit not to get in their way. For the most part, Sneddon let his attorneys do their jobs until it was clear they couldn’t or wouldn’t.
Around the office, Sneddon’s legendary temper gave rise to jokes about an indentation in the ceiling directly above his chair. Despite his profile as a hard-charging law-and-order prosecutor, he proved surprisingly restrained in seeking the death penalty. Defense attorneys recalled his door was always open, and if they had serious objections to how a case was filed, he would give them a hearing.
Hardworking, conservative, and pugnaciously athletic — Sneddon boxed, played tackle football, and was a regular on basketball courts and softball diamonds — he first won election in 1982. Where his predecessor Stan Roden had fostered an assiduously independent and distant relationship with law enforcement, Sneddon was far more traditional in his approach.
His relations with former county sheriff Jim Thomas were both politically and personally very close. Together, they worked the county supervisors hard to ensure funding was maintained at levels they deemed adequate. County administrators who questioned their funding requests were met with bureaucratic wrath. That — coupled with Sneddon’s insistence on trying one or two high-profile cases a year — did much to ensure good morale within the department and career longevity among deputy attorneys previously inclined to seek greener pastures.
Sneddon was first hired by the District Attorney’s Office in 1969 and quickly rose up the ranks to become chief trial deputy. In 1973, he ran for judge and lost against a crowded field. In 1982, he faced token opposition when his predecessor Roden’s term expired and he declined to seek reelection. When Sneddon retired in 2006, his tenure was among the longest of any DA in the state.