Woman of conviction
Nancy O’Malley ’77, the first female district attorney of Alameda County, does her job with head and heart
BY FRED SANDSMARK ’83
Among dozens of family photos Nancy O’Malley ’77 has in her Oakland office, one shows a couple of her nephews smiling with Chris Rodriguez at a wheelchair basketball tournament. Rodriguez is the 10-year-old Oakland boy who was taking a piano lesson in 2008 when he was paralyzed by a stray bullet from a gas station holdup. O’Malley — now the District Attorney of Alameda County — prosecuted the shooter, resulting in a 70-to-life sentence. She remains close to the Rodriguez family.
O’Malley’s dedication to the case — and to Rodriguez’ well-being — isn’t surprising given her history. Her older sister, Maura, was killed by a drunk driver when O’Malley was 15, an episode that affected her in ways she only later understood. “I didn’t have a full appreciation of the loss of my sister until I started trying cases and talking to people who were impacted by crime,” O’Malley says. “I could absorb my own loss, but being witness to someone else’s loss is a very different perspective.”
The law has long been part of O’Malley’s family —her father was DA of Contra Costa County from 1969 to 1984 — but O’Malley couldn’t imagine a legal career when she was young. “I spent my grade school years in trouble for having a big mouth,” she recalls; her outspoken opinions were considered disrespectful. After high school she worked for a couple of years at a photo-processing firm before enrolling at what was then Cal State Hayward.
University life thrilled her. “Once I got there, I loved it,” she says. “The classes were stimulating and engaging.” Volunteering at a rape crisis center led her to a political science major; “I could see politics at work against victims of crime,” she recalls. O’Malley idolized Professor J. Malcolm Smith (whom she remembers as “engaging, smart, nice, and very accessible”), dreamed of an academic career, and wrote a senior thesis on upstart gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown.
But before she could begin graduate school, O’Malley was diagnosed with lymphoma and began a year of chemotherapy at the age of 25. “I think it was the best year of my life,” she says today. “We don’t often get an opportunity to look at ourselves and our life-and-death issues.”
When O’Malley negotiated her treatment plan, her doctor quipped that she should be a lawyer. She had heard it before: Her father had said it with enthusiasm, and her mother repeated it with exasperation. “There must have been something that I didn’t recognize in myself, but my family did,” O’Malley says. She does acknowledge applicable skills beyond fast talk: In school she was a diplomat, moving “from the nerds to the cheerleaders to the jocks to the hard-asses,” and her crisis center volunteer work had given her empathy toward crime victims.
She enrolled in Golden Gate University School of Law, graduating in 1983. Nine months later she applied to the Alameda County DA’s office. “What drew me here was not so much public service as the opportunity to go to trial,” she says.
“She cut her teeth on misdemeanor jury trials and was very good at it,” recalls Carol Corrigan, an associate justice in the California Supreme Court who hired O’Malley into the DA’s office. “Very early on, Nancy was identified as being something really special. She was assertive without being aggressive, very smart without trying to impress you with how smart she was.” O’Malley, Corrigan adds, always makes important decisions with both her head and her heart.
O’Malley may have joined the DA to try cases, but “the second day on the job, I (realized) that this was a job where you were helping people — you were a voice for people who didn’t have one,” she says. (The DA’s office not only prosecutes crimes and fraud; it also helps crime victims access financial support, counseling, and medical care.) O’Malley was an active prosecutor — she completed hundreds of felony preliminary hearings, tried more than 60 cases to jury verdict, and won convictions in 98 percent of both misdemeanor and felony cases. She made time, however, to work at state and county levels on rights and protections for crime victims and to found the Alameda County Family Justice Center (ACFJC), which offers a range of services for victims of violence and abusive behavior under one roof. (See “Navigating Victims’ Services,” page 24.)
“Tom Orloff, the former DA, was very generous about letting me run with my ideas,” O’Malley says, “because he knew I’d get my job done and do this other stuff on top of it.” (“I have a pretty big capacity to multitask,” she says, almost oblivious to the understatement.)
“You don’t let everybody run with these things,” Orloff recalls with a gruff laugh. “But she had a lot of ideas and a lot of interests.” The more work O’Malley did, the more she gained Orloff’s trust. “She had a lot of freedom, because she earned it,” he says. O’Malley became Orloff’s chief assistant in 1999 — a controversial move because she was promoted over more-senior attorneys.
As she progressed, O’Malley collected accomplishments and awards. In 1993 she became the first woman to lead the DA’s felony team at the main courthouse; in 1998 the California Senate named her Woman of the Year for her legislative contributions and work in stopping violence toward women; in 2004 she entered the Alameda County Women’s Hall of Fame; and she became president of California Women Lawyers in 2009. “In the legal field, especially in the earlier years, women were judged differently,” O’Malley says. “As a woman, I can appreciate the challenges of balancing work and life.”
Orloff retired in September 2009 and recommended that O’Malley succeed him. The timing of the announcement was questioned, and the County Supervisors’ vote for O’Malley was not unanimous; some argued that the transition was too quick. Still, when O’Malley stood for office in June 2010, she ran unopposed and received 98.68 percent of the vote. She believes her record explains her electoral success. “I think there was a level of respect for the job I’ve done,” she says.
Her latest initiative, known as Human Exploitation and Trafficking (HEAT) Watch, applies a variety of strategies against the commercial sexual exploitation of children, including community education, law enforcement, innovative charging and prosecution, communication with policy and community leaders, and coordinated delivery of services. “It brings together a lot of the things I’ve done,” O’Malley says of HEAT Watch, and it also demonstrates her forward-looking nature: She has been fighting human trafficking since 1994 and helped write California’s landmark 2006 legislation.
As DA, O’Malley no longer tries cases — something she misses terribly — but remains involved in legal strategy and policy. “Some on my staff may say I’m too involved,” she jokes, “but that’s because I have an opinion about how things should be.” She also has political duties. “I’m out almost every night of the week, speaking to community groups,” she says. She explains what the DA does, discusses her domestic violence and human trafficking initiatives, and engages in public conversations on topics like victims’ rights and women’s issues.
“I don’t think the message that we serve all communities has been made as pointedly and strongly as this office is doing now,” she says. She has encouraged the office staff — not just the attorneys — to help with outreach, particularly where languages and cultures present barriers. “I’m empowering them to identify issues around diversity, (helping us) expose ourselves to these cultures, and gain a level of cultural competency,” O’Malley says.
The outreach is working. The same shelf bearing the photo of Christopher Rodriguez also holds plaques and gifts from Latino, African-American, Afghani, and Asian-American groups she’s met. “My message to all these groups is that we serve all the people in this community, not just those who have money or who live in certain areas,” O’Malley says. Then, in spite of the seriousness of her comment, she cracks a wry smile. “My standard joke is that I represent a county where in Berkeley they drive electric cars, and in Livermore they ride horses to work. We’re very diverse.”