Justice & the Law

The Sudden Death of Near-Legendary San Francisco Public Defender, Jeff Adachi, Stuns Bay Area Leaders & the Many Ordinary People Whom He Championed

Celeste Fremon
Written by Celeste Fremon

When the news flew around the state that San Francisco Public Defender, Jeff Adachi, 59, had died of a possible heart attack on Friday night, after having trouble breathing while having dinner with a friend. Public officials, the legal community, and an unusually wide variety of ordinary people reacted with shock and genuine grief, as if for a member of the family.

Adachi was the only public defender in California elected by the people.  (The rest, including Los Angeles County Public Defender Ricardo Garcia, are appointed.)

Actually, he was one of the few elected public defenders in the U.S.

He had just been sworn for his fifth term in January to represent those without power, people too poor to afford an attorney.

He was also what U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called “a tireless advocate for justice and equality.”(Pelosi’s 12th congressional district is in San Francisco.)

“Tireless” was, in fact, a bit of an understatement.

In his sixteen years on the job, Adachi had what local journalist/editor, Joe Eskenazi, described as a “transformative effect on the public defender’s office.”

Far from the “‘dump truck’ reputation affixed to overworked, underpaid, questionably competent public defenders throughout the nation,” Eskenazi wrote, “Adachi’s office was not afraid to litigate. This office is composed of elite defense attorneys. It is a national beacon.”

As a justice reformer, and a gifted and fearless defender of the rights of everyday people, there was no one quite like him in California public life. The stunned and grief-stricken tweets that appeared once the news leaked out, made that clear.

“This man made us feel safe,” said San Francisco Supervisor Hillary Ronen. “People of color and the poor knew that if things got really bad, this man would be by their side fighting with all his might. Activists knew that if the government came down, that this man would be there. We were never alone because we had Jeff Adachi.”

Others, like CA State Senator Scott Wiener, were also quick to praise Adachi as a unique champion of those whom many others ignored. “His passion for helping the most marginalized and stigmatized people in society was extraordinary,” Wiener wrote. “His death is a huge loss for our city and for the cause of justice.”

Governor Newsom similarly said Adachi was “a passionate fighter for fairness and led the charge on progressive criminal justice policy.”

Newsom was right.  Often Adachi seemed to be working on more justice reform fronts than a 24-day could reasonably seem to allow.

A graduate of U.C. Berkeley, followed by Hasting’s College of the Law, from which he graduated in 1985, Adachi has tried more than 150 jury trials, and handled over 3,000 criminal matters, in his career as a defense lawyer, both public and two years in the private sector.

Yet, after he was elected to be the head PD in March 2002, he didn’t quit personally representing clients in court, even though he also happened to run an office of 93 lawyers and 60 support staff, which provided legal representation to over 25,000 indigent people charged with crimes each year.

In his five terms as head of the S.F. Public Defender’s office, Adachi accomplished a lot outside the traditional realm of what the job required. For instance, he created a clean slate program to expunge clients’ old convictions, which reportedly became a national model, and launched a bail unit that interviewed clients as soon as they were arrested rather than days later, thus speeding up the bail process.

His juvenile division, too, is a national model of what he and his staff called “holistic representation.” This meant that, in addition to the team of juvenile attorneys, the juvenile unit also included a team of combination social workers/youth advocates, which helped with the “collateral needs” of the youth (and their families) that the office represented.

His office also has one of the country’s top intern programs for law students and graduates.

Plus there is the mental health unit, the immigration unit, and the reentry unit—each part of his effort to create a modern, multi-faceted legal service organization to help the people of San Francisco County.

“He built one of the finest law offices in the country,” said his longtime second in command, Chief Attorney Matt Gonzalez, who will take over leadership for the time being.  “It’s not really a matter of dispute. I don’t think anyone will question that.”

And when he was in the mood, Adachi wrote informative and impassioned Op Eds for publications around the state and beyond.

As a part of his work, Adachi investigated police corruption, and often quarreled with those at city hall.

But even those with whom he fought with some regularity, like San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon,  reacted with grief and shock at the sudden loss of the man.

“I am deeply saddened by the unexpected news today,” Gascon tweeted late on Friday night.   “Jeff was a passionate advocate who always fought for what he believed in. He represented the underserved and gave his career to public service.”

It was that passion that made him close to legendary in his effectiveness, but also complicated.

“He was the most inspiring–and demanding—person I have ever encountered,” Deputy Public Defender Tal Klement told the Recorder.  Adachi was “motivated by his steadfast pursuit of justice for our clients and fueled by his indefatigable spirit.  Nothing on this earth could stop him when he believed in his cause.”

Ordinary people whose lives he had affected also described his importance after hearing of his death.

For instance, a man whose criminal record was expunged in Adachi’s Clean Slate program said this to KCBS radio: “Here’s a guy who doesn’t know me; I’m just one guy who applied for his program. But the profound impact he had on my life — everything I have right now I owe to that program.”

Yet, he had his own past sorrows.  In a 2010 profile that the San Francisco Chronicle wrote about Adachi, he talked about what it was like when, in elementary school, he learned of the existence of the Japanese internment camps. When he came home and questioned his mother about his discovery, he learned that his own parents and his grandparents had been interned in the camps during World War II. Looking back, Adachi told the Chronicle, he believes that the shock of that injustice led him to become a criminal defense lawyer.

Unanswered questions

Due to the fact that Adachi fell ill suddenly, police are investigating Adachi’s death, but have said they do not suspect foul play.

What is known at the time of this writing is that Adachi was at dinner with a friend in North Beach Friday night when he started to feel sick and have trouble breathing, and wanted to go to another friend’s nearby apartment, for which he evidently had the key.  At the apartment, the first friend, who was in from out of town, called 911 and emergency crews arrived and administered CPR. The paramedics then transported Adachi to California Pacific Medical Center’s Pacific Campus, where he was pronounced dead at 6:54 p.m.

Officials identified Adachi and notified police, who were reportedly despatched to the scene at 8:37 p.m.**

San Francisco mayor, London Breed, announced Adachi’s death at 9:40 p.m. on Friday night.

“I am saddened to announce that San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi passed away tonight.” she wrote. “San Francisco has lost a dedicated public servant, and our communities have lost a champion.”

We all have.

California’s beloved “voice for the voiceless” has been silenced.

There will be a vigil and march for Adachi on Wednesday, February 27  at 7 p.m.,  Those who want to attend should meet at the public defender’s office at 555 7th St, San Francisco, CA 94103.

Photo via San Francisco Public Defender’s Office.

**This story was updated at 6:04 p.m., February 25, 2019


  • Etched in my memory: The night Jeff and I sat next to each other to receive West Bay Pilipino Multi-Service Center’s Distinguished Citizen Award at USF and how both of us were so transfixed with the score of the Giant’s game through out the award ceremony. The Giants won! Rest In Peace Jeff Adachi, we will not forget you.

  • Why is that unusual that police were not called until later? Was a fire handle unless there was evidence or suspicion of foul play or illicit activity.

  • Editor’s note:

    Dear “Why,”

    Good question. There was a bunch conflicting information floating around last night in multiple news reports, when I was writing the end of the story. That one line you mentioned was an attempt to be fairly general until more information came out.

    But, instead, as you suggested, the line brought up more questions than it answered. My apologies.

    As of tonight, I’ve read three slightly different reported versions about what happened when the police went out, and about them being reportedly called off. The most recent report suggests they were notified after Adachi was I.D.’d at the hospital, then were called off by the medical examiner, but proceeded to the apartment anyway. Swirling around all this is a bunch of leaked police info, using words like “crime scene,” et al, that adds up to nothing in particular, as nearly as we can see. But it was leaked to multiple news outlets, and now the SFPD is investigating the leak.

    In any case, if you go back to the story you’ll see we have updated that one line, and disclosed as much below the story.

    Also, while we’re following this story, we’re not actively reporting on the circumstances of the PD Adachi’s death, unless something of real note comes up. In that case we’ll let everyone know.

    The main thing we wanted to report is that a really remarkable and incredibly dedicated public servant died suddenly. And that’s a loss for everyone.

    Long answer for a short question. 🙂

    But thanks for asking!

    Have a good evening.


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