Sunday Commentary: Why Do a Lot of DAs Seem to Have the Maturity of a Petulant Child?

Alameda County DA Nancy O’Malley – campaign photo from 2018

By David M. Greenwald

Yesterday we reported on the bizarre give and take between the Alameda County DA and their public defender.  As reported yesterday, Assistant Public Defender Richard Foxall filed a motion to recuse the entire DA’s office from a case due to past and ongoing misconduct that, frankly, is pretty well documented.

Foxall, as the appointed defense for his client, has the duty and obligation to do everything he can to provide his client with a vigorous defense.  Again, the cases of misconduct were well-documented.  I don’t know if the judge will agree with the defense, but they certainly have an argument.

The response by the elected DA of Alameda County—Nancy O’Malley—is nothing short of appallingly childish.

I am really reminded of the incident last June in Yolo County.  It was the day of the public defender Black Lives Matter march.  Yolo County Public Defender Tracie Olson was interviewed on Sacramento TV and discussed current problems in the system.

She said, “Honestly we see Black people go to prison for crimes that white people don’t go to prison for…On April 20, I looked at the jail population. We had about a little under 200 people in the jail, 49 of whom were Black. So that’s 25% of our Yolo County jail population is Black. Yolo County’s demographic population is 3% black. So we have over an 800% over-representation of Black men and women in our local jail. So it is a local problem.”

As we looked at the data after the fact, it seemed pretty accurate.  Moreover, notice she did not point fingers.  She did not blame the DA, law enforcement or anything.  She simply cited the data—accurately.

For that, DA Jeff Reisig responded with a completely over-the-top missive.

He said in a press release: “Yolo County Public Defender Tracie Olson’s recent broadside against the justice system in our county was inaccurate, irresponsible, and insulting to both prosecutors and the judiciary.”

Thin skin?  Childish?  Attempt to intimidate, especially as he demanded a public apology to her bosses, the Yolo County Board of Supervisors?

The response this week from Nancy O’Malley reminds me of Reisig’s response to Tracie Olson.

Granted, unlike Tracie Olson’s comment to the press, the motion to the court does point fingers directly at Nancy O’Malley.  But public defenders and defense attorneys file motions like this all the time—usually the DA responds in a response brief, not by retaliating.

Citing a “troubling and extensive pattern of misconduct” by “some prosecutors which the District Attorney of Alameda County has failed to seriously address,” Alameda County Assistant Public Defender Richard Foxall will move for recusal of the Alameda County DA’s Office in a motion that will be heard on Monday morning.

In response, in a letter from DA Nancy O’Malley to Public Defender Brendon Woods, the DA announced that “the District Attorney’s Office will no longer engage in informal discussions with the Public Defender staff.”

Foxall writes, “We would not ask the court to recuse the district attorney if the misconduct in this case was an isolated example. But it is not. Over the past decade, there has been a well-documented pattern 0f misconduct by some attorneys in the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office that has gone uncorrected and unpunished.”

The response is appalling.

DA O’Malley writes: “It is very unfortunate that it has come to this. Regrettably, false and misleading accusations against my Office, which has a great reputation, and false and misleading accusations against me and against members of the Office have created a hostile and unworkable relationship with the Public Defender’s Office.”

O’Malley said, “We will not lower ourselves to the level of pointing out unethical, unprofessional and dishonest conduct by members of the Public Defender’s Office, or against you, the appointed Public Defender. Instead, we will continue to carry out our duties as mandated under the law.”

I love it, she even pulls the only “we will not lower ourselves” by pointing out “unethical, unprofessional and dishonest conduct by members of the Public Defender’s Office”—yeah, hey, I’m glad she didn’t point out unethical conduct.

Of course, the 59-page filing by Foxall lays out in detail the allegations both in the instant case and in the department.

“Instead of saying that she will address the problems, her response is essentially saying we will not talk to you anymore,” Public Defender Brendon Woods said. “If we can’t informally try to resolve cases, the court backlog—which has been exacerbated by COVID—is only going to get worse.”

Woods earlier this week charged that, while many of the county prosecutors conduct themselves in an ethical manner, “we do know about 20 lawyers employed by their office now that, according to the court of appeals, committed misconduct in trials.”

I think it’s important to note that in this specific Alameda case, we have a 2017 appellate court decision that clearly puts the blame on the DA’s office.

The case involves a murder trial from 2017 in which Shawn Martin was charged with murder in connection with a 2014 incident.  Martin was found guilty of second degree murder at the time, but in 2020 the appellate court reversed a judge’s ruling on a jury instruction and remanded the case for retrial.

The appellate court explained that the “trial court … failed to clarify or correct the prosecution’s misstatement of the law regarding the antecedent threats instruction and the imperfect self-defense instruction.”

In his motion, Foxall notes that the court “wryly noted in its opinion … [t]hat the prosecutor made the argument that he did is inexplicable. Whether he did so through ignorance of the law or in bad faith is immaterial as there is no claim of prosecutorial misconduct before us.”

For a judge to even posit the idea of bad faith here suggests the level of egregious conduct by the prosecutor.

“This was not the only time the court pointed out the role that the prosecutor’s misconduct played in the reversal,” Foxall continues.

The court wrote, “We do not fault the trial court for using the approved CALJIC instruction; this instruction is still legally valid. The fault, however, lies in the prosecutor ’s incorrect argument and the trial court’s failure to correct it.”

Brendon Woods cites 20 cases, and the motion lays out a number of examples of prosecutorial misconduct under the office of Nancy O’Malley.

The striking thing in both cases—Nancy O’Malley and Jeff Reisig—is we have a systemic problem.  Yolo County, for example, is hardly alone with a vastly disproportionate number of Black incarceral population compared to the overall population.

O’Malley, instead of attempting to address problems in her office, has instead shown the equivalent of the approach to take her ball and go home.

“Instead of saying that she will address the problems, her response is essentially saying we will not talk to you anymore,” Woods said.

Doubling down, O’Malley pulls the old tactic of “I will not lower myself by pointing out the unethical behavior of the public defender’s office.”

Again, she said, “We will not lower ourselves to the level of pointing out unethical, unprofessional and dishonest conduct by members of the Public Defender’s Office, or against you, the appointed Public Defender. Instead, we will continue to carry out our duties as mandated under the law.”

Then again, by adding that to the letter she has done exactly that—by implication and innuendo.

I don’t think it’s too much to ask public leaders to act like adults.  Sometimes defense attorneys have to make strong arguments in motions.  Sometimes there is a good deal of truth to those arguments.  The proper response is not to fire off a letter as O’Malley did, that’s how a nine-year-old deals with such conflict, not how an adult does.  California and the voters of her county deserve better.

—David M. Greenwald reporting


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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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21 Comments

  1. Alan Miller

     the Maturity of a Petulant Child?

     

    is nothing short of appallingly childish.

     

    a completely over-the-top missive.

     

    Thin skin?  Childish?  Attempt to intimidate

     

    is appalling.

     

    I don’t understand the need to tell readers what they should think about something.  If the case is strong, could one not instead let it stand on its own, and/or simply explain what’s going on without the judgements?  Can’t we decided for ourselves what is ‘appalling’, ‘over the top’, ‘childish’ ?  This style of ‘journalism’ . . . . . . isn’t.  Sad it’s the new reality.  I can’t even read the New York Times anymore, as in so many articles they write in this style.  Personally, I find this style of writing appalling, over the top and childish 😐

    1. David Greenwald

      (You hate it so much, you did it yourself – interesting). It is a commentary and the DA had a hissy fit and in my view, deserved to be called out for it.

      1. Alan Miller

        (You hate it so much, you did it yourself – interesting)

        Well, I could have left that out in a fake attempt to show how much better I am, but clearly I’m not, so why fake it?

    2. Tia Will

      Alan

      I don’t see the phrases you quoted as “telling you what to think”, but as telling you unequivocally what David thinks.

      It is clearly labeled as “commentary”.

      1. Alan Miller

        Fair enough.  Still, my point is if a case is strong, we can see it for ourselves.  I don’t need to be told whether it is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – it will sell itself.  Even in a commentary.

    3. Bill Marshall

      Alan… it was labelled as “Commentary” at the top (“reporting” at the bottom)… but, am still scratching my head as to why the commentary was done at all, given there are very likely few VG readers/followers in Alameda County (who could actually select another DA)…

      “venting”? [Author, that is…]

        1. Alan Miller

          An article in a blog talking about what amazing work the blog did?

          Is that not kinda like holding a mirror up in front of ones-self at the podium at a City Council meeting and, while staring longingly into one’s own eyes declaring, for not more than two minutes of course, “I am so good looking!”

          1. David Greenwald

            Um, in response to Bill’s comment I was demonstrating how what we write has a broader impact than just Yolo County?

  2. Alan Miller

    O’Malley said, “We will not lower ourselves to the level of pointing out unethical, unprofessional and dishonest conduct by members of the Public Defender’s Office, or against you, the appointed Public Defender. Instead, we will continue to carry out our duties as mandated under the law.”

    Uh huh.

    Again, she said, “We will not lower ourselves to the level of pointing out unethical, unprofessional and dishonest conduct by members of the Public Defender’s Office, or against you, the appointed Public Defender. Instead, we will continue to carry out our duties as mandated under the law.”

    Yeah, we read that the first time you quoted her  😐

    1. David Greenwald

      But did you read this part: Doubling down, O’Malley pulls the old tactic of “I will not lower myself by pointing out the unethical behavior of the public defender’s office.”

      Not to mention this part: “Then again, by adding that to the letter she has done exactly that—by implication and innuendo.”

  3. Ron Oertel

    Kind of dull, today. Both articles, really.

    Bring on Jacob!  🙂

    Or, maybe talk about the SF School Board, or what’s occurring at the border?

    Of course, no one can be on target every day.

    1. Ron Oertel

      Regardless, I’m sensing a turning point in regard to the progressive DA movement.  (Again, both articles.)

      Partly as a result of the attacks against Asians.

      In my opinion, the underlying tools are not in place to support the progressive DA movement. (It would require far more than just letting prisoners out of facilities, early.)

      Actually, there’s some parallels regarding what’s occurring at the border, in that way. (In that there’s no “system” to support the perceived message.)

  4. Ron Oertel

    Sad it’s the new reality.  I can’t even read the New York Times anymore, as in so many articles they write in this style.

    I’ve noticed this, as well – not just with the New York Times.  Not sure if it’s partly due to changes in my own views, the decline of newspapers/media (as a result of Internet access to free sources), or something else. My guess is that it’s primarily due to the impact of the Internet on the industry as a whole.

    Regardless, I’m pretty sure that coverage is actually changing, and is becoming more advocacy-oriented and segmented throughout the industry.  With less in-depth analysis, and more “group think” – which is ultimately kind of dull.

    Actually, this would make an interesting topic in-and-of itself.

    My fifth comment.

     

  5. Bob Britton

    O’Malley’s allegation is McCarthyism, pure & simple. She intends to smear the Public Defender without offering evidence and at same time claiming to be above the fray.

    Yet, as reported here and elsewhere … During her term as President of the California District Attorney’s Association she continued a decade long practice of misappropriating over $3 M in public funds intended to support enforcement of environmental laws. Instead, according the CDAA’s own internal audit released after she left the position, the funds went to partisan political advertising advancing a tough on crime message to the benefit of CDAA member’s reelection. Now the CDAA would have us look the other way to ignore a criminal diversion of public funds and allow it’s repayment overtime. In other words, forgive and forget our own white collar crime while we lock-up people of color.

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