Obit­u­ary: Bill O’Mal­ley, long­time Con­tra Costa district at­tor­ney

San Francisco Chronicle (Sunday) - - BAY AREA - By Kim­berly Vek­lerov Kim­berly Vek­lerov is a San Fran­cisco Chron­i­cle staff writer. Email: kvek­[email protected] sfchron­i­ Twit­ter: @kvek­lerov

Bill O’Mal­ley, a long­time district at­tor­ney and Su­pe­rior Court judge in Con­tra Costa County, and a found­ing mem­ber of the county’s pub­lic de­fender’s of­fice, died Mon­day. He was 94.

O’Mal­ley served as Con­tra Costa County district at­tor­ney from 1968 to 1984, build­ing a rep­u­ta­tion as an in­no­va­tive ad­vo­cate for fe­male vic­tims of crime, us­ing funds and re­sources from his of­fice, for in­stance, to cre­ate the county’s first rape cri­sis cen­ter and do­mes­tic vi­o­lence shel­ter.

In 1985, O’Mal­ley ran suc­cess­fully for Su­pe­rior Court judge, a po­si­tion he held un­til his re­tire­ment a decade later.

A fa­ther to nine chil­dren, O’Mal­ley in­stilled in all of them a com­mit­ment to pub­lic ser­vice, his fam­ily said. A daugh­ter, Nancy O’Mal­ley, is the district at­tor­ney for Alameda County and son Dan O’Mal­ley is a for­mer deputy district at­tor­ney and judge in Con­tra Costa County.

Nancy O’Mal­ley said her fa­ther’s ad­vo­cacy for vic­tims of sex­ual as­sault was un­usual for the time.

“He bucked the sys­tem,” she said. “People thought do­mes­tic vi­o­lence was just a fam­ily mat­ter. They thought if some­one was sex­u­ally as­saulted, they de­served it some­how . ... My dad’s say­ing in the D.A.’s of­fice was, ‘It is what it is. The facts are what they are. Do the right thing.’

“He said, ‘You fight for jus­tice, no mat­ter who you are fight­ing against.’ ”

Born in Bos­ton to an Ir­ish im­mi­grant fam­ily, O’Mal­ley joined the Army at 16 to fight in World War II but was kicked out when com­man­ders dis­cov­ered he was too young to serve, the fam­ily said. Two years later, at the height of the war, he en­listed in the Navy.

Dur­ing a visit home, O’Mal­ley met his fu­ture wife, Claire Dunn, and the two be­gan dat­ing. For the re­main­der of the war, they sent love let­ters back and forth, daugh­ter Nancy said.

O’Mal­ley was sta­tioned in Alameda for part of his ser­vice and, like so many ser­vice mem­bers who came through Cal­i­for­nia at the time, fell in love with the state. He moved to the re­gion in 1953.

His im­me­di­ate goal after the war, though, was to get a col­lege ed­u­ca­tion. He grad­u­ated with a bach­e­lor’s de­gree in his­tory from Ford­ham Uni­ver­sity in New York and be­gan stud­ies at Bos­ton Col­lege Law School, Dan O’Mal­ley said. But he had to drop out to support his fam­ily after his own fa­ther died, ac­cord­ing to his son.

O’Mal­ley took a job as an in­sur­ance ad­juster, and law school would wait un­til his re­turn to the West Coast. He en­rolled in night school at Golden Gate Uni­ver­sity in San Fran­cisco, but his cred­its from Bos­ton did not trans­fer, and he was 37 years old by the time he earned his law de­gree.

In his early years as a lawyer, O’Mal­ley served as a deputy district at­tor­ney and deputy pub­lic de­fender in Con­tra Costa County, with stints in pri­vate practice in San Fran­cisco. He was one of the first at­tor­neys to do full-time pub­lic de­fense in the county. Pre­vi­ously, there was no county of­fice de­voted to de­fend­ing people who couldn’t af­ford an at­tor­ney — lawyers in the area would be con­tracted on a case-by-case ba­sis to rep­re­sent in­di­gent de­fen­dants.

The Con­tra Costa County Board of Su­per­vi­sors ap­pointed O’Mal­ley district at­tor­ney in 1968 after his pre­de­ces­sor, John Ne­jedly, be­came a state se­na­tor. O’Mal­ley served the re­main­der of Ne­jedly’s term and won elec­tion four times after that be­fore be­com­ing a judge, fo­cus­ing on fam­ily law dur­ing his final five years on the bench.

“He was revered by the fam­ily law bar,” Dan O’Mal­ley said. “Most judges tra­di­tion­ally didn’t like do­ing fam­ily law, but he loved it. He was in a people’s busi­ness.”

Nancy O’Mal­ley, who first be­came in­ter­ested in law as a vol­un­teer in the nascent East Bay rape cri­sis cen­ter, said she once came home to vent to her fa­ther after she wit­nessed a po­lice of­fi­cer be­ing abu­sive — and got a talk­ing-to.

“He said don’t tell him at the kitchen ta­ble. He said, ‘Make a com­plaint to some­one who can do some­thing about it,’ ” she said. “It’s one thing to sit around and com­plain. It’s an­other to be a change agent.”

O’Mal­ley knew ev­ery­one by name — court­room clerks, jan­i­tors and gang mem­bers in Mar­tinez, and de­spite the de­mands of his ca­reer, he “never missed a Lit­tle League game or recital,” said his son, Dan. He was an avid hiker and en­joyed play­ing golf.

David Cole­man, for­mer Con­tra Costa County pub­lic de­fender, said O’Mal­ley was “a per­son of the people” and “just a guy from Bos­ton.”

“He just was a per­son with­out pre­ten­sion,” Cole­man said. “Fre­quently prose­cu­tors tend to think a lot of them­selves. Bill O’Mal­ley did not do that kind of thing.”

O’Mal­ley died Mon­day at a care fa­cil­ity in Lafayette, sur­rounded by fam­ily.

“He was lay­ing there ready to die and then he started singing an Ir­ish tune,” Dan O’Mal­ley said.

He was pre­ceded in death by his wife, Claire, and daugh­ter Maura O’Mal­ley, who was killed by a drunken driver. He is sur­vived by eight chil­dren, Nancy O’Mal­ley, Dan O’Mal­ley, Betsy In­gram, Mary O’Mal­ley, Grace Hanover, Patty O’Mal­ley, Denise Clark and Jake O’Mal­ley, as well as 13 grand­chil­dren and six great-grand­chil­dren.

Ser­vices are sched­uled for Fri­day at Christ the King Church in Pleas­ant Hill.

Cour­tesy O’Mal­ley fam­ily

Bill O’Mal­ley, Con­tra Costa County district at­tor­ney from 1968 to 1984, helped cre­ate the county’s first rape cri­sis cen­ter and do­mes­tic vi­o­lence shel­ter.

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