The Hon. Walter E. Steele, the bespectacled former superior court judge who was a well-known figure on the Vineyard, died Jan. 21 at St. Luke's Hospital in New Bedford. He was 78.

Judge Steele, who presided over the Edgartown District Court and later the Dukes County Superior Court, earned fame in 1969 as the special prosecutor who brought charges against Sen. Edward M. Kennedy for leaving the scene of the infamous accident at the Dike Bridge.

He was born in Roxbury, the son of a civil engineer, and grew up in Jamaica Plain. He served in the United States Navy for three years as a Seabee, and was discharged in 1946. He graduated from Suffolk University Law School in 1954, and from 1955 to 1957 he worked as a research assistant to the Suffolk County district attorney. In 1957 he was appointed assistant district attorney. In 1969 he was appointed special prosecutor for Dukes County, one month before the accident on Chappaquiddick. He remained a special prosecutor and practiced criminal law until he was appointed associate justice of the District Court by Gov. Francis W. Sargent in 1974. In 1989 he was named to the superior court. He stepped down from the bench in 1990 at the mandatory retirement age of 70, but not willingly. "They fired me," he was fond of telling people.

An avid reader and an equally avid Boston Bruins fan, Judge Steele was an affable person with an understated sense of humor and an easygoing manner. He brought his own values to the bench, and was known for sometimes lecturing uncooperative defendants and chiding unkempt attorneys. He did not believe in mandatory sentencing. "There is an unwritten consensus, I guess, among judges that a certain case is worth a certain sentence. There are hard line guys who believe strongly in incarceration. But I don't have that much confidence in that," he told the Vineyard Gazette in a 1979 interview.

"He combined a lot of things - he knew what it was to be a trial attorney and he took that with him when he went on the bench," said Dukes County Superior Court clerk Joseph E. Sollitto Jr., who first met Judge Steele in 1969.

"He probably read a novel a week. He was raconteur - he could sing songs with the best of them, he had a great wit and he was nice to everybody," Mr. Sollitto said.

"Judge Steele was a real character with a twinkle in his eye. He enjoyed being a judge and enjoyed life and had compassion for people. I always felt it was a pleasure to be in front of him," said Vineyard attorney Ronald H. Rappaport.

"A sad loss - he served the commonwealth and the county very well," said Thomas Teller, the retired longtime Edgartown District Court clerk-magistrate. Mr. Teller played a role in Mr. Steele's appointment as special prosecutor in 1969.

"He was good guy and an excellent judge - very compassionate," Mr. Teller said.

His marriage to the late Dolores Hurley ended in divorce. In 1981 he married Margaret Robinson Hufstader of Edgartown, where they lived for many years. Through Margaret he developed a love of sailing, a hobby he pursued for 15 years, and also a love of gourmet cooking. His second marriage also ended in divorce.

At the time of his death he was living in South Dartmouth with his companion Janet Stella Kotrofi.

He is survived by two sons, Walter Jr. of South Boston and Terrence of West Roxbury; a daughter, Roberta of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; and six grandchildren.

A funeral mass was held on Wednesday at St. Theresa of Avila Church in West Roxbury. Interment was in St. Joseph's Cemetery in West Roxbury.