San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi Dies at 59

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Public Defender Jeff Adachi was known for his commitment to providing the best legal representation to his clients even when it was unpopular. He was 59 years old. (Bert Johnson/KQED)

Updated Sunday, 10:58 a.m.

Longtime San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi, a Japanese-American from Sacramento whose parents and grandparents were interned during World War II, died suddenly Friday night. He was 59.

"We do not yet have solid details as to the cause of his death, but we do know that he was out in North Beach at dinner with a friend when he began to have trouble breathing," said Katy St. Clair, spokeswoman for the Public Defender's Office, in a statement. "EMTs were able to recover a pulse but he later died at the hospital."

The San Francisco Medical Examiner is leading the investigation into cause of death, with the San Francisco Police Department assisting. An SFPD public information officer said there are no signs of foul play.

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According to the city charter, Mayor London Breed will be responsible for appointing an interim Public Defender, who will serve until the next election in November. Until then, St. Clair said Chief Attorney Matt Gonzalez will lead the office's day-to-day operations.

Breed issued a statement calling Adachi someone who "stood up for those who didn't have a voice, have been ignored and overlooked, and who needed a real champion."

"He was committed not only to the fight for justice in the courtroom, but he was also a relentless advocate for criminal justice reform," Breed added.

In a tweet, San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera said, "San Francisco has lost a legal giant."

U.S. Senator Kamala Harris, whose office interacted regularly with Adachi’s when she was San Francisco District Attorney, called him "an outspoken fighter for justice and police accountability, and a fierce and talented advocate for his clients."

Adachi was first elected Public Defender in 2002 and was re-elected four times, most recently in 2018.
Adachi was first elected Public Defender in 2002 and was re-elected four times, most recently in 2018. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Harris added that "Jeff never stopped working for a justice system that provided equal dignity and never stopped believing in our power to make it better. It is now on all of us to continue that work."

Garrett L. Wong, presiding judge of the San Francisco Superior Court, issued a statement praising Adachi's "ardent pursuit of justice."

"On behalf of the Court, we are saddened by Mr. Adachi’s passing and extend our deepest condolences to his family, co-workers and all who worked closely with him to achieve equality, justice and fair treatment for every defendant in our justice system," Wong said.

Each year Adachi's office represents thousands of defendants who cannot afford their own attorney. He was known as a tireless advocate, in the public square and in the courtroom.

"Jeff was a passionate advocate who always fought for what he believed in," San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón tweeted Friday night. "He represented the underserved and gave his career to public service."

Adachi was persistent in lobbying for more funding for his office to pay for investigators, new technology and the kinds of services clients would get if they could afford to hire an attorney, he told KQED's Political Breakdown earlier this year.

"If you don't have a strong, well-funded public defender's office, if you've got a public defender who's got 500 felony cases at a time, what kind of justice are you going to get?" he said.

Lateefah Simon, an activist and BART Director who's known Adachi for more than 20 years, said he was a regular presence at city hall during budget season for almost two decades. She said he would regularly sit outside supervisor's offices so he could lobby them for more funding.

"Jeff was the kind of elected leader who didn't send his people to do his work," Simon said.

Adachi's well-resourced office allowed him to build a department that set a gold standard for other public defenders around the nation, according to Bay Area civil rights attorney John Burris.

Instead of taking lots of plea deals, like many lesser-resourced public defenders are criticized for doing, Adachi's office took many cases to trial.

"He wanted to make sure everyone had their day in court if they wanted that day in court," Burris said. "They represented people constantly and aggressively."

That doggedness, according to Burris, helped keep police, judges and the district attorney's office accountable.

"Knowing that he was there and that any misstep would be called into question, I think was the most important aspect," Burris said. "He was there watching and holding people accountable."

Adachi oversaw the defense of Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, who was found not guilty of murder charges two years ago in the 2015 shooting death of Kate Steinle as she walked along San Francisco's waterfront with her father. Then-presidential candidate Donald Trump seized on the shooting to criticize the city's immigration policies, catapulting the case into the national spotlight.

Adachi (L) enters court for an arraignment with Jose Ines Garcia Zarate (R) on July 7, 2015, in San Francisco. Adachi oversaw Garcia Zarate's acquittal for the killing of Kathryn Steinle, a case that gained national attention, including from then-candidate Donald Trump. (Michael Macor-Pool/Getty Images)

Adachi attended Sacramento City College before transferring to and graduating from UC Berkeley in 1981 and UC Hastings College of the Law in 1985. He worked as a deputy public defender in San Francisco and won election in 2002, defeating Kimiko Burton, the daughter of former state Sen. John Burton who was appointed to the position by then-mayor Willie Brown.

Burton was supported by all of the city's political heavyweights, including Brown, Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, but Adachi rode the wave of anti-establishment fervor that year, defeating Burton 55 to 45 percent.

Adachi won re-election four times without any opposition, most recently in 2018. San Francisco is the only county in California that elects its public defender.

Adachi was never afraid to take on the establishment, and sometimes it cost him. In 2010, Adachi placed Proposition B on the San Francisco ballot aimed at increasing city employee contributions to their health and pension benefits. The measure lost, and public sector unions didn't forget what they saw as Adachi's lack of loyalty to organized labor.

Adachi was the subject of a PBS documentary, Presumed Guilty, a film about the San Francisco Public Defender's Office.

The documentary was started before Adachi's election in 2002 and ended up capturing a lively and spirited campaign that ended with a newcomer handily defeating a favorite of the city's political elite.

Adachi is survived by his wife Matsuko and their daughter Lauren.

Adachi is the second elected official to die in office in San Francisco over the past two years. Mayor Ed Lee also died of a heart attack in 2017. He was 65.

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