Chang prosecuted some of Santa Cruz County’s most notorious homicides in the 1970s and became known around the world for describing the bucolic town of Santa Cruz as “the murder capital of the world.”
Mr. Chang’s lurid description of his adopted hometown came at the height of a literally murderous period in Santa Cruz, 1970 to 1973, when his office prosecuted killers John Linley Frazier, Edmund Kemper III and Herbert Mullin. Mr. Chang personally prosecuted Frazier and Kemper and would have prosecuted the Mullin case, but was out with appendicitis.
Mr. Chang was born in Honolulu; his father, who was in the Navy, was based at Pearl Harbor at the time. When World War II ended, the family moved to Palo Alto and Mr. Chang was educated in local schools.
He was intensely interested in music and became a first-class trumpet player. By the time he was 14 he was playing in bands led by Stan Kenton, Harry James, Lionel Hampton, Louis Armstrong and other jazz stars.
After high school, Mr. Chang went to Menlo College for two years, then to Stanford University, where he graduated in 1958 with degrees in English literature and American history. He went into Stanford law school, graduating in 1961.
He then started looking for a job and immediately ran into resistance. “A lot of criminal defense firms were not willing to hire Asian Americans,” his son, Christopher Chang, said the other day. Mr. Chang was of Korean descent.
In a 1991 interview with Champion, the magazine of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Mr. Chang said, “no one at that time thought an Asian could stand toe-to-toe with an Irishman in a criminal courtroom.”
He finally got a job with the Monterey County district attorney as a junior prosecutor and found he was “absolutely no good at it at first and lost the first 11 cases that I prosecuted,” he told the magazine. He took speech and drama lessons and “watched all the good trial lawyers in the area,” and finally learned how to speak in public.
In 1966, he ran for district attorney in Santa Cruz County and defeated the veteran incumbent by a wide margin, becoming, at 29, the youngest district attorney in the United States and the only Asian American to hold such a post.
In 1974, Mr. Chang lost a race for a Superior Court judgeship and went into private practice in Santa Cruz, but his life soon took a sharp turn downward. He started drinking so heavily that by “1982, I had lost my practice, my family and everything that had been dear to me,” he told Champion magazine in 1991. “I would still walk five miles in the rain, if necessary, to be at a bar when it opened.” He ultimately joined Alcoholics Anonymous, got sober, and went back to practicing law in 1983.
He won an appointment to the faculty of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, teaching courses in the summer, and was elected to the organization’s board in 1991. For the past decade, Mr. Chang concentrated on the defense of narcotics and white-collar cases in federal court.
Mr. Chang passed away in 2005 at age 67.
I knew Peter for several years when I was a paralegal at Liberty and Liberty on Dakota Street. I performed paralegal research for Peter. He was a very dear friend of mine. Thank you for writing his stories.
Thank you for reaching out and sharing your story. Did you work with him at the time he was working on Kemper’s trial?