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It was a rare moment of political showmanship for Alameda County District Attorney Thomas Orloff. Facing an unsympathetic crowd and a liberal Board of Supervisors considering whether to back a death penalty moratorium, the normally low-key Orloff showed county supervisors pictures of smiling children whose killers had been sentenced to death. The photos didn’t change the vote; supervisors narrowly supported a weaker version of the resolution. But the pictures deeply moved spectators, outraged the moratorium’s supporters and swung the momentum of the packed public hearing in Orloff’s favor. Such raw political theater is something Orloff, 59, generally seems to avoid. “What’s more important than what you say is what you do,” the lanky, laid-back prosecutor said. “It’s walking the talk.” While it’s commonplace to see San Francisco District Attorney Terence Hallinan locked in public political skirmishes, court watchers say intrigue at the Alameda County DA’s office is seldom in public view. Orloff hardly ever holds a formal press conference, deputies say, and he ran unopposed for re-election in 2002. Orloff is just the fifth person to hold the top prosecutor’s job in Alameda since its most famous occupant, Earl Warren, left in 1939 and went on to become California’s governor and the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. In fact, there hasn’t been a contested race for Alameda County DA in 29 years. And like former District Attorneys D. Lowell Jensen and Jack Meehan, Orloff is a homegrown DA. He came to the office in 1970 and worked his way up through the ranks. He became Meehan’s No. 2 and was elected in 1994 after Meehan retired. From the beginning, Orloff was focused on his goal. As a trial attorney he was “very low key in a way, but connected in a very direct way with jurors,” said First District Court of Appeal Justice William McGuiness, a former deputy DA who worked alongside Orloff and who is the DA’s friend. “He was patient and did everything he needed to do to get that job,” McGuiness said. “Being the district attorney of Alameda County is the only job that Tom wanted to have.” Orloff got that job nine years ago, and he said that maintaining the 160-attorney office’s high caliber of legal work is more important than obsessing over a passing crime trend. To illustrate his point, he talked about widespread media coverage of Oakland homicides last year. After two years where there were fewer than 90 murders, in 2002 the number jumped to more than 100. In 1995, Orloff’s first year as DA, there were 153 murders, he said. “Am I doing anything different in 2002 that I did in 1995?” he said. “The answer is no.” District attorneys in neighboring counties say the Alameda County DA’s office has long been known for its legal prowess. George Kennedy of Santa Clara County and Bob Kochly of Contra Costa County said prosecutors elsewhere in the state often use Orloff’s office as a sounding board for tough issues. “The Alameda County DA’s office is very well regarded,” Kochly said. And unlike more conservative counties, Alameda doesn’t doggedly pursue “wobblers” — nonviolent offenses — as potential Three Strikes cases. It is also selective about cases it chooses to seek the death penalty for, attorneys say. Alameda County has more violent crime than neighboring counties such as Contra Costa and Santa Clara. Those crimes take precedence over nonviolent offenses like theft and low-level white-collar crimes that may be pursued more aggressively by other DAs. Veteran criminal defense attorney James Giller said Alameda County’s reasoned charging philosophy predates Orloff and goes back as far as he can remember. “Alameda County has always been a place where you can talk to someone about cases,” said Giller, a name partner at Oakland’s Mintz, Giller & Mintz. “It has always had a reputation of being firm but reasonable.” Lorna Brown, another longtime defense attorney, said Alameda County “is the best county to be in as far as being a defense attorney.” Brown said she couldn’t recall a case where county prosecutors had tried to have a defendant’s wobbler offense treated as a strike. DEEP CONNECTIONS Although Orloff doesn’t flaunt his political juice, that doesn’t mean it’s lacking. Orloff is a past president of the California District Attorneys Association. Plus, he has family roots in the county — he’s a native of Pleasanton, and members of his family have long been involved in local politics. Orloff’s grandfather was Pleasanton’s mayor in the 1930s, and his father served as Pleasanton’s vice mayor and as a member of the school board in the 1950s. He downplays his connections, though, explaining that when his father and grandfather were politically active, Pleasanton was a small town of a few thousand people, not the bustling city of 68,000 that it is today. Perhaps the most politically sensitive issue that Orloff will have to juggle next is who he will name as his successor. Orloff was re-elected unopposed in November, and he will be 63 when his term expires. He says he will probably run again. If he doesn’t, that would appear to clear the way for his second-in-command, Nancy O’Malley, to take the top spot. In Alameda County, the chief assistant is the traditional steppingstone to the top spot. O’Malley herself hails from a family with extensive political roots in East Bay courts. Her father, William “Bill” O’Malley is a former Contra Costa DA and a retired superior court judge. Her brother, William “Dan” O’Malley, is a career prosecutor who was elected to the Contra Costa County bench in 2000. Her sister-in-law, Mary O’Malley — who is married to Dan — is also an ex-Contra Costa County prosecutor who was appointed to the bench in 1998. Nancy O’Malley acknowledged that she could be in line to be DA, but said she doesn’t think about it much because she’s busy supporting Orloff. “The way he has said it is that he will stay DA as long as he is supposed to,” she said. “I would never want to do anything to appear as if I am encroaching on him.” Orloff says choosing his successor is such an important decision that he doesn’t want to comment on it. “I will do my level best to do whatever is best for the people in this office and this county,” he said. But while Orloff has a solid cadre of supporters, his connections may have also led to some criticism. Some say he may be too quick to hire children of Alameda County judges as prosecutors in his office. While the practice certainly isn’t limited to Alameda County, Orloff’s office seems to have more sitting judges’ children on its payroll than most, longtime court watchers say. Among the deputy DAs with parents on the bench are Maya Ynostroza, daughter of Judge Carlos Ynostroza; Catherine Horner Kobal, daughter of Judge Jeffrey Horner; and Paul Hora, son of Judge Peggy Hora. Prosecutor Matthew Golde’s father is the late Judge Stanley Golde. “On the surface, it looks terrible,” said defense attorney Giller, who runs the Alameda County Bar Association’s court-appointed attorneys program. But, he added, “That’s historical in this county. For the most part they have been good people.” Orloff defends the practice, saying there are many children of fellow judges that he has decided not to hire. Defense attorney Brown said she is trying a case now with Kobal and has done so many times in the past. “I’ve never had any problem whatsoever,” she said. QUIET CLOUT Among his employers, Orloff seems perennially popular. The county has been extremely pleased with the way that Orloff has handled his $34 million budget, said Gail Steele, president of the county Board of Supervisors. “He’s managed his budget very well,” said Steele, who has been on the board since 1992. In 2002, supervisors approved a generous pay raise for Orloff, whose annual pay jumped 12 percent in January, from $184,000 to $206,000. The increase was part of a package of raises that went to other elected officials, including the sheriff and the county auditor-controller. There are other signs that the DA holds sway over the county supervisors. Take the recent meeting about the death penalty moratorium. A stream of pro-moratorium speakers, including Public Defender Diane Bellas, kept their comments to a few minutes. Orloff, however, was unhurried. He asked for and was given more time that any other speaker. A senior deputy in his office, Angela Backers, gave a lengthy presentation about how death penalty inmates get lots of appeals — which drew hisses and grumbling about equal time from the pro-moratorium camp. For his finale, Orloff projected pictures of murdered children whose killers were sentenced to death. Supervisor Scott Haggerty declared that Orloff shouldn’t have to abide by the time limit — or have to address the board from the same podium used by the public — since he is a member of the county’s staff. No one raised that point, however, when Bellas — another department head with a major stake in the death penalty debate — spoke. Later, Orloff explained the way in which his office handles death penalty cases. According to an unwritten internal policy, he said, a committee of prosecutors helps Orloff make death penalty decisions. The panel includes the prosecutor who put on the preliminary hearing case, O’Malley, Senior Deputy DA James Anderson and Assistant DA William Baldwin. They also ask for input from the defense attorney. Although the committee doesn’t vote, Orloff considers its take on the case and then makes the final decision. But Orloff’s system doesn’t assuage the fears of moratorium advocates. They want a halt in executions, so flaws in the system can be studied. Over the past few years they have successfully swayed city and county leaders throughout the Bay Area to adopt symbolic resolutions in support of the moratorium. For example, after moratorium advocates came to Santa Clara County, Kennedy put his office’s “death penalty protocol” in writing. In Contra Costa County, Kochly said he is considering putting his office’s death penalty practices on paper too. Kochly recalls that Orloff “was obviously agitated about it when he talked to me about it.” Kochly added that he thought that showing pictures of the victims was the right thing to do. “It’s easy to forget that there are real horrors that the victims go through,” he said. But publicly at least, Orloff is playing it cool. As far as any suggestions that racial bias or other flaws in the system cause the death penalty to be applied unfairly, Orloff said, “I don’t think that those are valid concerns in Alameda County.” And he said he feels no pressure to put his death penalty policies in writing. In an interview before the moratorium vote, he quietly — but firmly — asserted: “I am the elected DA of this county. We will continue to do what we do.”

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