Will Nancy O'Malley Be California’s Next Top Prosecutor?
Alameda County's district attorney is on the shortlist to become the next state attorney general. She’s recognized nationally for combating sex trafficking, but is that enough?
Nancy O’Malley has earned a national reputation for prosecuting sex trafficking.
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Soon after Nancy O’Malley joined the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office in 1984, she prosecuted a sex-trafficking case that would shape the rest of her career. It was a heartbreaking story of a 12-year-old girl from a loving, supportive family who had become entrapped by a pimp who was more than two decades older than she.
O’Malley recalled that the young girl had developed a troubling and intense connection with her exploiter. “I had my eyes opened to how strong the psychological bond between a victim and their pimp could be,” O’Malley recalled during a recent interview.
Although that case was the first she ever prosecuted, it was not O’Malley’s initial encounter with the pain and anguish inflicted by sexual exploitation and rape. While attending Cal State Hayward in the 1970s, she volunteered at the Contra Costa County rape crisis center, which was one of the first of its kind. “That was at a time when we did not have a fair system,” she said. “There was a lot of victim-blaming, and I could see how deep their trauma ran.”
In the DA’s office, O’Malley decided to specialize in prosecuting sex crime cases and went on to serve for a decade as chief assistant to then-District Attorney Tom Orloff. Later, she created the Human Exploitation and Trafficking, or HEAT, unit to pursue prostitution and sex trafficking prosecutions.
With the help of grants that established specialized units for combating sex trafficking and pimping, O’Malley made the HEAT Unit permanent and turned it into a model for district attorneys across the nation. She also pushed back against the commonly held perception that there is something unique about sexual exploitation in the Bay Area. “It became a big thing here, because we started telling the truth about it,” O’Malley said of Alameda County’s—and particularly Oakland’s—reputation as a hub for sex trafficking and sexually exploited minors. “It’s not just an urban problem; everyone needs to open their eyes, because it is all around us.”
In 2009, when the retiring Orloff handpicked her as his successor, O’Malley became Alameda County’s first female district attorney. In the past several years, she has gained a national reputation for her work on sex trafficking, testifying at federal and state legislative hearings and winning numerous awards.
“There is not one leader who’s worked longer on this issue in California or the United States than I,” said O’Malley, during an interview in her ninth-floor office, which is filled to the ceiling with law books, awards, and mementos. Alameda County, she said, has prosecuted more trafficking cases than all other counties in the state combined. “It’s incredibly important to my office.”
Later this year, O’Malley, 63, could make sex trafficking an important issue for California as well. She’s considered to be on the shortlist of potential successors to state Attorney General Kamala Harris, who is widely expected to become California’s next U.S. senator on Nov. 8. In mid-September, Harris held a commanding 17-point lead in the polls over fellow Democrat Loretta Sanchez in the contest to replace retiring Senator U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer. She finished 20 points ahead of Sanchez in the June primary.
If Harris wins as expected, Gov. Jerry Brown will appoint an interim attorney general to serve until the 2018 election. In addition to O’Malley, Brown’s shortlist reportedly includes some of California’s highest-profile prosecutors: San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón, Los Angeles County DA Jackie Lacey, and Santa Clara County DA Jeff Rosen.
During a packed press conference in Oakland on Sept. 9, O’Malley may have bolstered her chances for landing the job. The Alameda resident announced that she intends to file criminal charges against seven current and former East Bay cops for their roles in the wide-ranging police sex abuse case involving the young woman who used to go by her online name Celeste Guap. O’Malley, who refers to the young woman as “Ms. A,” said two of the officers sexually assaulted Ms. A when she was a minor.
For a prosecutor who has built her career on combatting trafficking, the Ms. A case—the worst East Bay law enforcement scandal in years—has clearly struck a chord. “I find much of the conduct we uncovered morally reprehensible,” O’Malley said at the press conference.
But the Sept. 9 announcement was also striking because O’Malley has never made police misconduct prosecutions a priority of her office. And so it’s an open question as to whether she will start doing so now—or if the Ms. A case is special because it centers on the district attorney’s career passion: sex trafficking.
Either way, it seems clear that as the debate begins this fall over who should be California’s next attorney general, O’Malley’s spotty record on police misconduct cases could become pivotal. That’s especially true given the heightened concerns about police-community relations nationwide amid protests over racial profiling and police killings of blacks and Latinos.
Gov. Brown, to be sure, will examine other issues beyond law enforcement’s strained relationship with communities of color when deciding who should be the state’s next top prosecutor. And O’Malley’s résumé includes more than just prosecuting sex traffickers: She also has received praise for implementing criminal justice reforms in Alameda County, including drug courts and diversion program that are designed to reduce prison incarceration rates. But she has come under fire over the years for her office’s focus on prosecuting street-level crimes that tend to primarily target people of color rather than emphasizing cases involving corrupt public officials and white-collar criminals.
Nancy O’Malley, one of nine children, comes from a family of prosecutors. Her father, William, served as Contra Costa County DA from 1968 to 1984, and her brother Dan O’Malley is a former Contra Costa prosecutor and retired judge who unsuccessfully ran for CoCo DA in 2010.
But O’Malley wasn’t always sure she wanted to be a prosecutor. After surviving a battle with lymphoma while she was in college, the first public service job she applied for upon graduating from law school was that of a defense attorney with the Alameda County Public Defender’s Office. O’Malley recalls that she was quickly taken aside by public defender staffers who told her a more appropriate place for her would be across 14th Street at the District Attorney’s Office in the Renee C. Davidson Courthouse near Oakland’s Lake Merritt.
“They told me, ‘We need folks there with good judgment, not just hard-assed people,’ ” O’Malley recalled in a recent interview.
Despite the national reputation she has earned during the past three decades for prosecuting sex crimes, O’Malley is not well known locally. Observers say that’s partly because that, unlike most major urban counties in California, Alameda County hasn’t seen a truly competitive election for district attorney in decades. In 2014, O’Malley ran unopposed, and her predecessor, Orloff, replaced Jack Meehan in an uncontested 1994 election.
As a result, many East Bay residents are unaware of O’Malley’s policy goals or her record in office. “She’s part of a pretty anonymous bureaucracy that most people don’t think about enough to challenge or criticize,” said longtime Oakland civil rights attorney Dan Siegel. “In San Francisco, the entire process is fairly politicized in a good way. You have an elected DA who is forced to justify himself to the public in terms of the prosecutorial philosophy they follow.”
Other than in the Ms. A case, O’Malley’s most well-known public remarks in recent years are ones that she now perhaps regrets: her widely criticized statements in opposition to a proposed In-N-Out franchise in Alameda. Speaking at an Alameda planning board meeting in July 2013, O’Malley claimed that criminals from crime-ridden Oakland would target patrons of the popular fast-food chain. “We have people coming to what could be considered a vulnerable site in Alameda,” O’Malley said. Her remarks were considered by many to be racist, and she compounded the problem by grossly overstating Oakland’s robbery rate, which drew condemnation from Alameda and Oakland elected officials alike.
However, there’s little argument about her effectiveness in dealing with sex trafficking and sexual assault cases. Since taking over as district attorney, her office has prosecuted 518 cases involving sex trafficking and sexual exploitation involving minors and young persons and has earned an 82 percent conviction rate, she said. “We have worked with more than 625 minors who have been exploited,” she added at the Sept. 9 press conference.