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When allegations surfaced 2 1/2 years ago that the Alameda County district attorney’s office had a history of keeping Jews and black women off of capital juries, capital litigation coordinator Angela Backers publicly defended the office. The veteran prosecutor came off as fiercely loyal: It was, after all, the place where she had started more than 20 years ago and worked her way up to become the first woman heading the death penalty team. Inside the Oakland courthouse, though, her united front with the DA was crumbling. Backers, known in her early career as a rising star, began clashing with boss DA Tom Orloff on issues as grave as when to seek the death penalty, according to Backers’ allegations in the gender discrimination lawsuit she filed late last month. She also accuses Orloff of fostering a male-dominated culture in the office, where she was unfairly passed over for promotion and denied high-profile cop-killing cases. From the outside, it seemed Backers was the model of a tough female prosecutor holding strong influence in the office. The tall blonde, who was once nicknamed “Xena the Warrior Princess” for what one reporter called “her strength and ferocity,” was assigned to the death penalty team in 1998 and was later named capital litigation coordinator. While some in the defense bar question some of her trial tactics � and her personal presentation � both defense attorneys and prosecutors have described her as aggressive, tough and extremely well-prepared. “If Angela Backers sued me, I’d be concerned,” said defense attorney William DuBois, who opposed Backers when he represented confessed killer Hamisi Spears in 2004. DuBois added that although he didn’t know about the claims in the lawsuit, if she prepared this lawsuit as well as she prepares her cases, then there must be a “serious basis for it.” PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY Backers declined to be quoted for this story, in order, she said, to keep her focus on her current death penalty case against Robert Rhoades. But a look at her history sheds some light on her interest in the criminal justice system. A Catholic active in her church, Backers studied philosophy and psychology at St. Mary’s College where, according to a MediaNews Group article, “her courses gave her insight into morality, good versus evil, and logic.” She once said in an interview with the East Bay Express that the best prosecution jurors are the ones who believe in personal responsibility. Fresh out of University of San Francisco School of Law in 1984, her job at the Alameda DA’s office under then-DA Jack Meehan was her first. From the beginning, Backers gave off a sense of self-assurance, said Rockne Harmon, a senior deputy DA who has worked at the Alameda County DA’s office for 33 years. Despite the suit, her attorney Kathryn Dickson says Backers is still very committed to the office. “She wants [to spend] her entire career in this office,” Dickson said. “She respects her colleagues” and “is a staunch defender of that office and their work.” Her trial record backs up the impression she’s left on many defense attorneys as a formidable opponent in the courtroom. Although she’s not entirely liked by the defense bar, nobody denied she’s an effective attorney. Since 1998, Backers has tried four capital cases and won convictions in all of them, according to Dickson and Nancy O’Malley, who has come to Orloff’s defense since Backers filed her complaint. All but one � Hamisi Spears � received the death penalty. In her complaint, Backers alleges that in one case, Orloff insisted the death penalty be sought when the evidence wasn’t strong enough, setting Backers up for failure. Backers’ attorney wouldn’t say if she was referring to the Spears case, where she was unable to persuade the jury to find a special circumstance. Orloff declined to comment on any aspect of the lawsuit because it is pending, but said he has not yet been served. “She investigates the hell out of everything,” said defense attorney Michael Ciraolo, adding that she presents her cases with subtleties and nuances that end up proving “extremely effective” in the courtroom. Ciraolo recalls coming up against Backers in at least two trials, including the 2002 trial of James Daveggio and Michelle Michaud, who were sentenced to death for the murder and sex enslavement of a 22-year-old woman. TEARS FOR THE JURY While many concede she is respected as an attorney, some defense attorneys question Backers’ tactics. “I think she is very intense and can be a little difficult at times � in my opinion, in an unnecessarily aggressive or intense manner,” said Deborah Levy, who represented Ropati Seumanu in 2000. Seumanu, convicted of killing a man the day before his wedding, is now on death row. Word around the defense bar is that Backers is also likely to cry at some point during trial, so much so that even before going to trial, defense lawyers expect it and warn each other about it. “She cries every time � every time,” Levy said. “In my personal opinion, I don’t believe you can cry about every case. I would be suspicious of the tears.” Still, Levy added, based on her experience bonding with her clients, getting to know a client could trigger emotion. Dickson said whatever emotion Backers shows is “absolutely genuine” and merely shows her commitment to the victims and their families. Her office, for example, is strewn with pictures of murder victims in cases she’s prosecuted, illustrating a passion Dickson says she detected from Backers “almost immediately.” “She’s certainly not an actress,” Dickson said. “What you see is what she feels.” And what people see in the courtroom is a very thorough, dynamic presentation coupled with somewhat nontraditional courtroom clothing, which some defense lawyers think helps her rapport with jurors. She’s been known to wear fishnet stockings, skirts that fall on the shorter side and very high heels, several defense lawyers said. “She is attractive and that draws people’s attention to her,” Ciraolo said. “That makes her behavior more observed and as a consequence, her facial expressions and her body language has more import than a guy like me.” On a recent day of jury selection in the current death penalty case of Robert Rhoades, Backers wore conservative garb: a black sweater, pleated skirt and a pearl necklace. “Angela’s a master at using a good vocabulary that has psychological cues and code words for some of the jurors that gives it a different impression. There, she’s better than a lot of the other lawyers,” Ciraolo added. While the lawsuit may have caused some tension within the office, Dickson said Backers continues to work, including assisting Orloff in the upcoming trial of accused cop killer Irving Ramirez. She’s been showing up at staff meetings and greeting colleagues � some who support her, others who don’t respond, Dickson said. “There are many people who are very upset with her,” Dickson said, “but she holds her head up high.”

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