Legendary. Advocate. Leader.
Those are just some of the words city officials, colleagues and friends used to describe San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi who died on Friday at the age of 59.
Adachi on Friday night was eating dinner with a friend in North Beach when had trouble breathing, Katy St. Clair, a spokesperson for the public defender’s office said. Emergency crews were able to find a pulse, but Adachi later died at the hospital.
In 1987, Adachi became a deputy public defender and was first elected as public defender in March 2002 defeating Kimiko Burton-Cruz in the election. Before being elected public defender in 2002, Adachi had served as chief attorney for the office. Adachi graduated from Hastings College of the Law in 1985.
He had been sworn for his fifth term as public defender last month.
Adachi had been known by many to represent those who were underrepresented and for those who did not voice in the justice system such as undocumented immigrants, inmates and persons leaving the jail system.
Mayor London Breed said in a statement:
“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. 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 lead the way on progressive policy reforms, including reducing recidivism, ending cash bail, and standing up for undocumented and unrepresented children.”
Breed and Adachi made the announcement last year to eliminate outstanding court fees owed by individuals who left the criminal justice system.
Adachi had also worked with supervisors Hillary Ronen and Sandra Lee Fewer providing more funding for a unit in his office to provide counsel for immigrants in The City.
“San Francisco lost our super hero tonight. We all need to double down in our fight for justice and racial equality. It’s what he’d want. Rest in power dear Jeff.”
Fewer said she had known Adachi before he was elected as the public defender in 2002 and said he was not afraid to bring to light criminal injustices in The City:
“Jeff was unafraid to shed light on injustices like police criminal behavior, harmful bail practices and racist policies like gang injunctions. He believed that every human deserved to be treated with respect and humanity.”
Former San Francisco Mayor and Gov. Gavin Newsom said in statement:
“San Francisco lost a dedicated servant of the public last night in Jeff Adachi. He was passionate about fighting for fairness and leading the charge on progressive criminal justice policy. Jennifer and I express our deep sympathy to Jeff’s wife and daughter, and to all his family and friends in this time of grief.”
Niki Solis, San Francisco Deputy Public Defender, said in statement:
“For over 20 years, Jeff was a mentor, a friend, an inspiration and a true leader — always bringing out the best in each and every one of us.”
Some of the high-profiled cases his office has taken on include representing an undocumented immigrant where his Chief Attorney Matt Gonzalez was able to get an acquittal for a murder charge for the shooting of Kate Steinle at Pier 14 in 2015.
Just last December, Adachi was also able to get a 34-year old attorney off a second-degree murder charge for the killing of James “Rick” Thomas in 2015.
Adachi was not just known for his work in his office, but also for his advocacy in bail reform and injustices in the criminal system.
He also worked as a director for several films, including “The Slanted Screen,” which examined stereotypes of Asian men in movies and television. Adachi also directed “Defender,” which gives viewers a lens into the criminal justice system as a film crew follows Adachi.
Adachi is survived by his wife Mutsuko and daughter Lauren.
He was to attend the Chinese New Year Parade in The City on Saturday as he had for many years.
A statement was put out by parade officials on Saturday on Facebook:
“The Chinese Chamber of Commerce and everyone involved with the Southwest Airlines Chinese New Year Festival & Parade are deeply saddened by the loss of Public Defender, Jeff Adachi. A humble man that fought hard for things he believed in, Jeff Adachi is a irreplaceable loss to the public service sector and to our city. Jeff Adachi was scheduled to ride in the Chinese New Year Parade as one of our VIP guests this evening. May he rest in peace.”
Jerold Chinn is the San Francisco Bureau Chief of SFBay. He covers transportation and City Hall. He has spent over a decade covering transportation in San Francisco. Jerold is a native in the city and frequently takes public transit everywhere he goes. Email tips to [email protected]