The Alameda County District Attorney’s Office was formed in 1853 with the appointment of its first District Attorney, William H. Combs. For many years, most of Alameda County’s District Attorneys came to the position from private practice and, after relatively short periods in the office, became judges or returned to private practice.
The Modern Era
1920 – Today
In the modern era, the best-known DA was Earl Warren who joined the office in 1920 as a deputy district attorney and was appointed DA in 1925. In 1939, he was elected Attorney General of California, and in 1946 he was elected Governor. Warren served as governor until 1953 when President Dwight Eisenhower appointed him Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. As Chief Justice, Earl Warren is probably best remembered as the author of the landmark case of Miranda v. Arizona.
Warren’s successor as DA was his Chief Assistant, Ralph E. Hoyt. Hoyt was DA until 1947 when he was appointed to the Superior Court by Governor Warren. Hoyt was succeeded as DA by J. Frank Coakley who served as District Attorney until 1969.
As DA, Coakley returned to the trial courts in 1955 to prosecute Burton Abbott in one of the most highly-publicized cases in the history of California. Abbott was charged with abducting and murdering 14-year old Stephanie Bryan as she was walking home from school in Berkeley. Abbott was convicted and sentenced to death. He was executed in San Quentin’s gas chamber in 1957. For Coakley and the DA’s Office, the 1960’s were a particularly difficult time because of civil unrest and criminal acts associated with the free speech movement, Vietnam War demonstrations, and the emergence of the Black Panther Party in Oakland.
D. Lowell Jensen succeeded Coakley as DA in 1969. National attention was centered on Alameda County and Lowell Jensen in 1976 with the Chowchilla kidnapping case. Three armed men had entered a Chowchilla school bus and kidnapped 26 school children who were on their way home. The kidnappers then drove the children to a rock quarry in Alameda County’s Livermore Valley where they buried the school bus with the children in it. When the children escaped, Jensen and Sheriff Tom Houchins headed-up a massive investigation which resulted in the arrest of the three kidnappers who subsequently pled guilty.
Another highly-publicized case during Jensen’s administration was the murder of Oakland Schools Superintendent Marcus Foster on November 6, 1973. Foster was shot and killed with cyanide-encrusted bullets as he walked to his car after a school board meeting. Two days later, an organization which called itself the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) claimed responsibility for the murders. When two members of the SLA were arrested for the murder, Jensen decided to prosecute the case personally. Following a lengthy trial in Sacramento (where the case was transferred due to of extensive pre-trial publicity), both men were convicted, although one of the convictions was overturned because of a faulty jury instruction.
In 1981, Lowell Jensen was appointed by President Reagan to the position of Chief of the Criminal Division of the United States Department of Justice. Jensen’s successor as DA was John J. Meehan, Jensen’s Chief Assistant and a career prosecutor who joined the office in 1960. As an Assistant DA under Jensen, Meehan had formed the Law and Motion Department and later, in 1970, founded the office’s respected legal publication Point of View, which he wrote and edited until he was appointed DA. Meehan also established the weekly video show Points and Authorities. Today, the Point of View and Points and Authorities are read and viewed by prosecutors, officers, and judges throughout California. Mr. Meehan held the position of District Attorney until 1994.
Upon the retirement of John J. Meehan, his Chief Assistant, Thomas J. Orloff was elected to the office of District Attorney. Mr. Orloff, a life-long resident of Alameda County, began his career in the office in 1970 and retired in 2009 after 40 years of service. While he held many supervisory positions, the work Mr. Orloff found most satisfying was trying cases. During his career, he tried over 100 felony cases, including approximately 25 murder cases. As District Attorney, Mr. Orloff personally prosecuted Irving Ramirez for the murder of San Leandro Police Officer Dan Niemi, securing a death penalty verdict.
When Mr. Orloff retired in 2009, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors appointed Nancy E. O’Malley as District Attorney. DA O’Malley is the first woman to hold this position in the County’s history.
To find out more about DA O’Malley, please visit the Nancy O’Malley Bio page.