Progressive firebrand Jeff Adachi, who served as San Francisco's elected public defender for 17 years, died suddenly of an apparent heart attack Friday night. He was 59.
Adachi, a Japanese American, was the son of a Sacramento auto mechanic and a laboratory assistant. As he told KQED in the 2002 documentary Presumed Guilty, which centered on the San Francisco Public Defender's Office, both his parents and grandparents were sent to an internment camp for Japanese Americans during World War II. Adachi was born in 1959, and later graduated from UC Berkeley in 1981, and then UC Hastings College of the Law in 1985.
With a dragon tattoo on his arm, and posters of Malcolm X and Rage Against the Machine in his office, Adachi was an iconoclast made in a San Francisco mold.
After serving as deputy public defender, Adachi was elected to head the Public Defender's Office in 2002. He ran against Kimiko Burton-Cruz, the daughter of famous State Senator John Burton, who had been appointed to the job by then Mayor Willie Brown, and as KQED recalls he won the race as the anti-establishment candidate. He's since been reelected four times, most recently in 2018. (San Francisco, btw, is the only county in California that elects its public defender.)
As the Chronicle writes, Adachi is remembered as "an intense and tenacious man who delved deeply into the subjects he cared about, regardless of what anyone else thought."
Mayor London Breed, in a statement, said that Adachi "always stood up for those who didn't have a voice, have been ignored and overlooked, and who needed a real champion."
In a tweet Friday night, San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón said, "Jeff was a passionate advocate who always fought for what he believed in. He represented the underserved and gave his career to public service."
Senator Kamala Harris, who formerly served as the city's DA, said in a statement, "Jeff was an outspoken fighter for justice and police accountability, and a fierce and talented advocate for his clients. 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."
Adachi not only oversaw a staff of over 100 attorneys, who annually advocate for over 25,000 indigent defendants, he also often went to court himself. Along with the Public Defender's Office chief attorney Matt Gonzalez, Adachi defended Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, the homeless undocumented immigrant accused of murder in the 2015 shooting death of Kate Steinle. The case gained national attention in connection with the debate over immigration, and then candidate Donald Trump's sensational rhetoric about undocumented immigrant criminals. Garcia Zarate was acquitted in November 2017 after Adachi and Gonzalez successfully argued that the shooting was accidental.
More recently, he won an acquittal for local tenants' rights attorney Carlos Argueta, who was accused of second-degree murder in the stabbing of a man on Sixth Street in 2015. Adachi notably argued the case himself, and called his client to the stand, subjecting him to cross-examination.
A prime example of Adachi's willingness to take on unpopular causes was his championing of Proposition B in 2010. The measure, which failed, attempted to trim the city's budget and future liabilities by requiring city employees to contribute more to their health and pension benefits. At the time Adachi told the Chronicle, "If you're talking about the one problem that threatens core services of government and the quality of life in San Francisco, this is it. As a public defender, we often have to take unpopular positions. We're representing clients who are unpopular themselves. By definition, our role is to challenge the system."
Bevan Dufty, a friend and colleague of Adachi's for 20 years, said in a statement to the Chronicle, "[Adachi] really tried to see the big picture in promoting services and approaches to reducing recidivism. I really felt like he 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.” Also, Dufty added, "He had a great sense of humor."
Adachi is survived by his wife, Mutsuko Adachi, and one daughter, Lauren.
In his most recent interview with SFist, in 2014, Adachi told the story of his first trip to San Francisco, coming from Sacramento, as a teenager. "The first time I came here by myself in high school, my cousin and I visited with our class," he said. "Everyone else ate at Castagnola's but we didn't have $20 so, instead, we bought French rolls and some cold cuts for a few bucks and ate them in a grassy area near Fisherman's Wharf — it was the best sandwich I ever had in my life!"
Related: 20 Questions With SFist: SF Public Defender Jeff Adachi [SFist]