San Fransisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi, a staunch Kamala Harris critic, has been found dead. He was 59.
During her time as San Francisco’s highest ranking law enforcement official, Kamala Harris’ administration was rocked by a scandal where she covered up for a crime lab technician. One of her high profile opponents in this case was SF public defender Jeff Adachi.
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Sfchronicle.com reports: The exact circumstances and cause of Adachi’s death were not immediately known, but sources said he died of a heart attack.
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“As one of the few elected public defenders in our country, Jeff always stood up for those who didn’t have a voice, have been ignored and overlooked, and who needed a real champion,” Breed said in a statement. “He was committed not only to the fight for justice in the courtroom, but he was also a relentless advocate for criminal justice reform.
“Jeff led the way on progressive policy reforms, including reducing recidivism, ending cash bail, and standing up for undocumented and unrepresented children.”
Adachi’s colleagues were in shock and mourning the city’s loss. Deputy Public Defender Eric Quandt called his boss “a true visionary for equal rights and criminal justice.”
“I’ve never seen a defense lawyer more tenacious or courageous,” Quandt said. “He made the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office one of the premier law firms in the nation. I’m so proud to have had the opportunity to work under his guidance. I’m devastated. I’m sure I’m speaking for many of my colleagues.”
He is remembered as being a firebrand — an intense and tenacious man who delved deeply into the subjects he cared about, regardless of what anyone else thought. From a young age, he enjoyed solitary pursuits, like writing and reading, he told The Chronicle in 2010.
He went on to study business at Sacramento City College before transferring to UC Berkeley. He graduated from UC Hastings College of the Law in 1985. A year later, the Public Defender’s Office hired him. Adachi had been sworn in for another term as a public defender in January after running unopposed.
Unlike other city department heads who focus on management, Adachi would regularly step up and defend clients himself. In December, he won an acquittal for Carlos Argueta, an immigrant rights attorney who faced a murder charge.
“I am deeply saddened by the unexpected news today,” said city District Attorney George Gascón. “Jeff was a passionate and relentless advocate who always fought hard for what he believed in. He represented the underserved and gave his career to public service.”
State Sen. Scott Wiener remembered Adachi as a man of his word, one who “fought like a dog for what he believed in for his clients.”
“I always knew that everything he said or did came from the heart,” Wiener said. “He was someone who, it didn’t matter to him what people thought about him or if people were mad at him. He was there to fight for the most marginalized people in society.”
Adachi’s passion for social justice extended outside of City Hall, too, to documentary filmmaking. His films, “You Don’t Know Jack: The Jack Soo Story” (2009) and “The Slanted Screen” (2006), examined the challenges Asian American actors faced in Hollywood. “Defender” (2017), co-directed by Jim Choi, used a case Adachi defended to examine racial inequities in the criminal justice system. Each of the films were shown in film festivals.
Former Supervisor Bevan Dufty, who now serves on the BART Board of Directors, knew Adachi for more than 20 years and remembered him as a ferocious advocate. He was well known at City Hall for fighting for more money for his budget.
“He really tried to see the big picture in promoting services and approaches to reducing recidivism,” Dufty said. “I really felt like (Adachi) had a vision that was needed to reduce the involvement of poor people in the justice system. I didn’t always agree with him, but I always appreciated that he made this job so much bigger than what the charter called for. He had a great sense of humor.”
Every year, Adachi’s office wore T-shirts in San Francisco’s Gay Pride Parade that read, ‘Getting People Off Since 1921.” Adachi also published an annual calendar featuring pictures of his lawyers.
“He wasn’t somebody who tried to stay under the radar,” Dufty said. “He was proud of the work he did, he cared deeply about his clients, and he was an important part of the reform movement in our justice system.”
Supervisor Hillary Ronen said she was devastated by the loss.
“He made so many of us feel safe,” she said. “For people of color, they knew that no matter how bad things got, they had the fiercest advocate who would always stand by their side. He was one of a kind.”
Ronen’s husband, Francisco Ugarte, worked in Adachi’s office representing undocumented immigrants.
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, whose district includes part of San Francisco, called Adachi “the real deal … a righteous public servant who believed passionately in the Constitution, due process and the rights of the accused to be ably represented by counsel. He did not shrink from public debate or tough political decisions.”
“The last time I saw him he was at a political event decked out in a beautiful jacket for Halloween, and it was 8 a.m. in the morning,” she said in a statement. “My prayers go out to his family at this painful and numbing time. The community of San Francisco will envelop you and give you strength. God bless you.”
Adachi took great pride in being an elected public defender, saying it gave him an independence he wouldn’t have if he was appointed by someone.
“Letting voters elect a public defender has dramatic, real-world advantages,” he wrote in a March 2018 letter to the Los Angeles Times to take issue with an editorial in that paper saying electing public defenders was not necessary.
“Because I’m elected, I’ve been able to publicly advocate for proper funding — even refusing cases — without fear of being fired by the mayor or board of supervisors,” he wrote. “We’ve been able to hire social workers for families and immigration specialists to fight deportation and re-entry staff to bring down recidivism. That’s something that benefits all San Franciscans, not just those charged with crimes.”
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