Public Defender Jeff Adachi Dies at 59

The longtime advocate reportedly died of a heart attack on Friday evening.

Longtime San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi has died, sources say.

A statement from Mayor London Breed confirms that Adachi, 59, died of a heart attack Friday night.

“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,” read a statement sent Saturday morning by the Public Defenders office. “EMTs were able to recover a pulse but he later died at the hospital. He is survived by his beautiful wife Mutsuko and his daughter Lauren.”

A crusader for justice, in recent years he was best known for his leadership in the battle against California’s racist and classist cash-bail system.

His office led the now-famous Humphreys case, in which their client Kenneth Humphreys was held on a $600,000 bail for stealing $5 and a bottle of cologne. That case is now being used to challenge bail fees across the state.

And, Adachi’s colleagues Matt Gonzales and Francisco Ugarte led a successful effort to acquit Jose Inez Garcia Zarate in the death of Kathryn Steinle, a case which drew national attention and the ire of President Donald Trump.

But, his advocacy extended beyond the legal sphere; Adachi was also a talented filmmaker. He made documentaries about the lack of representation of Asian males in Hollywood, and last year, he made a documentary film based on the trial Garcia Zarate, titled Ricochet.

According to Breed’s statement, “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.”

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

He was a genuine fighter on behalf of the disadvantaged. As Julia Carrie Wong wrote in her 2015 profile in SF Weekly:

It’s all part of what Adachi calls “holistic representation.” As an office charged with a constitutional mandate to represent the poor in what Adachi calls “a society that’s addicted to charging people with crimes and incarcerating them,” he has a vested interest in the “social outcome” of his clients. “The worst thing in the world if you’re a public defender,” he says, ” is to see your client back in jail again.”

Supervisor Hillary Ronen summarized Adachi perfectly in a statement on Facebook Friday night. “This man made us feel safe,” she wrote. “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. We were never alone because we had Jeff Adachi.”

Former-Supervisor Jane Kim calls Adachi a “legendary courtroom attorney, criminal justice reform warrior, eminent public servant, and good human being. He was your most persistent and fiercest advocate.

“It isn’t lost upon me that San Francisco has lost two of our historically elected Asian American leaders in the last 14 months,” she added, referencing Mayor Ed Lee. “They were both firsts in the offices and spent their entire careers in public service. Thank you for shattering ceilings.”

Adachi was first elected to the office of Public Defender in 2002. From 1998 to 2001, he served as the Chief Attorney of the Public Defender’s office. Born in Sacramento in 1959, his grandparents were incarcerated during World War II. Although Adachi unsuccessfully ran for mayor in 2011, he was re-elected to his position in 2014 and 2018.

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