SAN DIEGO — Since 1971, Los Angeles County has had five district attorneys, Orange County two, and San Francisco three.
San Diego County has had Edwin L. Miller Jr.
Miller, 68, has the longest tenure of any district attorney in the state's 58 counties. Only the D.A.s in rural Stanislaus and Sonoma counties even come close. In four of his five reelection campaigns he ran unopposed.
Based on the measures commonly used to evaluate district attorneys--conviction rate, number of felons sent to state prison, number of killers sent to Death Row, assets seized from drug dealers--Miller has consistently received acclaim from his prosecutorial peers nationwide.
"Ed Miller is still the one who is looked to by many district attorneys for counsel and advice," said Greg Totten, executive director of the California District Attorneys Assn. "He's seen it all."
What Miller has seen recently, however, is something new and, in his view, unfair and unpleasant. As he battles for a seventh and final term before retiring, four election opponents are charging him with coasting on his reputation while his underlings bungle cases.
He has also been tarred with the ignominy of a failed prosecution that has become a local \o7 cause celebre: \f7 the case of Dale Akiki, a developmentally disabled man accused of molesting children at a church child-care facility.
In jail for 2 1/2 years, Akiki was quickly exonerated when the case against him, which lacked any physical evidence, finally went to a jury. Some jurors expressed outrage that Akiki had been charged.
Reluctantly, Miller accepted blame for the Akiki case and promised changes in prosecution of child molestation cases.
"After 23-plus years of service, it's simply unfair to attempt to rest one's career on the basis of one case," Miller said in an interview. "I think that people are beginning to appreciate what I've done for this community."
The San Diego Union-Tribune, long supportive of Miller on its editorial page, has branded the Akiki case a witch hunt and called for Miller's retirement.
"After 24 years, Ed Miller has lost the public's confidence," said challenger Paul Pfingst, 42, a former deputy district attorney who successfully prosecuted high-profile murder cases before going into private civil practice and serving part time as a local television commentator on legal matters.
"Ed Miller has come to represent the past," said Casey Gwinn, a deputy city attorney, who, at 33, is the youngest of Miller's challengers and the most confrontational.
Miller, an aloof, imposing presence during three decades in public life, has reacted angrily to the criticism, particularly from Gwinn.
"To suggest that the district attorney's office be given over to someone 33 years old who knows nothing about the office is mind-boggling," Miller said.
His campaign brochures say that Gwinn and another challenger, Municipal Judge Larry Stirling, oppose legal abortion and would be reluctant to prosecute demonstrators who block abortion clinics.
Gwinn, who has ties to the Christian right and whose brother is an Operation Rescue anti-abortion activist, declines to state a position on abortion but insists that he would readily prosecute lawbreakers.
Stirling, 52, a former San Diego City Council member and state legislator, says that he favors legal abortion and that Miller's assertion to the contrary is false and "beneath the dignity of his office." As a Republican legislator, Stirling opposed funding abortions for poor women under Medi-Cal and favored parental notification before a teen-ager could get an abortion.
The Deputy District Attorneys Assn., which represents the office's 265 prosecutors, has endorsed Miller and circulated flyers emphasizing that Pfingst was fired as a prosecutor in New York state in 1978 for smoking marijuana.
"I'm surprised to see Ed as nasty as he's been," Pfingst said.
"When Miller gets angry at forums," Gwinn said, "his ears turn bright red and his face flushes."
Miller accuses his opponents of distortion. "I've been sitting here listening to a great deal of nonsense," he said at one forum.
Elected as a reformer in 1970, Miller helped break the iron grip of San Diego's longtime civic boss, banker C. Arnholt Smith, by convicting him of grand theft and tax fraud. He has chased two San Diego mayors from office on charges of corruption.
A Democrat, Miller has avoided party politics and never aspired to another office. In a media age, he is the antithesis of the headline-grabber who speaks in sound bites. He makes few public appearances, rarely holds news conferences and does not personally try cases.
A graduate of Dartmouth and UCLA Law School, Miller served in the Navy during World War II. He was the U.S. attorney here before running for district attorney.
Polls show Stirling with a narrow lead, but half of voters are still undecided. If no candidate gets a majority, the top two will square off in November.