‘A force of nature’: UC Berkeley alumnus, San Francisco public defender Jeff Adachi dies at 59

Portrait of Jeff Adachi.

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UC Berkeley alumnus Jeff Adachi, San Francisco’s public defender for almost 17 years, died Friday at the age of 59.

After graduating from UC Berkeley and UC Hastings College of the Law, Adachi worked as a deputy public defender in San Francisco for 15 years and in private practice for two years. From 1998-2001, he was the chief attorney of San Francisco. In 2002, he was elected as public defender of San Francisco — one of the few elected public defenders in the country, according to the San Francisco Public Defender website.

Adachi received many awards for his work, including  the 2017 Youth Champion Award, the 2016 Society of Professional Journalists Public Official Award, the 2015 American Bar Association Hodson Award for Public Service and the 2014 California Public Defenders Association Program of the Year Award.

“(He) had an incredible vision for the office,” said Niki Solis, an attorney for the public defender’s office, who has known Adachi for more than 20 years. “He would stop at nothing to help folks who were marginalized, at the fringes, the castaways.”

According to an email from Katy St. Clair, the public information officer for the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, he tried more than 150 jury trials in his career and handled more than 3,000 criminal matters — a number of which were serious felony charges and homicide cases. According to the email, Adachi technically never lost a homicide trial. In one case, his client was convicted but Adachi maintained his innocence, and the case was later dismissed.

In a statement, San Francisco Mayor London Breed said, “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.”

According to St. Clair’s email, Adachi was an outspoken critic against police abuse of power. In March 2011, he exposed surveillance footage of police entering an apartment without a warrant, sparking an investigation that concluded with the conviction of four officers. He was an outspoken opponent of “Textgate” in 2016, which involved police officers texting racist and homophobic messages. Adachi revealed improper strip searches at the women’s jail and wrote an op-ed in collaboration with Supervisor Shamann Walton demanding more oversight of jails and that investigations into misconduct be conducted by a third party.

The California Public Defender’s Association said in a statement that “The genuineness of his concern for all human beings was repeatedly demonstrated by his programs for disadvantaged children.”

As the public defender, he created the MAGIC programs — Mobilization for Adolescent Growth In Our Communities — which connects families in areas where juvenile crime is prevalent to education, and health and community services that address the root causes of this behavior.

According to an email from St. Clair, in addition to his philanthropic work, Adachi made films that addressed racial issues in America. He has directed five films. One of them, “Defender,” won Best Documentary at the Independent Television and Film Festival in October 2017.

“He was a force of nature,” said St. Clair. “There were a lot of people who were all show, but that was not what motivated him. … He was passionate about being there for … clients who were down on their luck.”

Contact Megha Krishnan at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @_meghakrishnan_ ‏.

Correction(s):
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that one of Jeff Adachi’s cases was later declared to be a mistrial. In fact, the case was dismissed.

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Jeff Adachi was the only elected public defender in the country. In fact, he was the only elected public defender in California, and one of the few elected public defenders in the country