Before his sudden death Friday, Public Defender Jeff Adachi spent decades standing up for the poorest of San Francisco.
Adachi was a talented defense attorney who up until the end tried difficult cases in the courtroom, and is remembered as an inspiring leader who shaped his office into one of the best of its kind in the country.
For years Adachi was often the first to condemn and expose police misconduct in San Francisco, releasing videos of officers beating men or illegally searching rooms at residential hotels. More recently he turned his attention toward bail reform and prosecutorial misconduct.
Adachi suffered shortness of breath Friday evening after having dinner with a friend in North Beach, according to the Public Defender’s Office.
Sources said he had the medical episode after returning to an apartment at 46 Telegraph Place, the lower unit of a three-story apartment building near Coit Tower.
After a woman called 911 at around 5:20 p.m., first responders arrived at the scene and restored his pulse. He was taken to a California Pacific Medical Center campus on Buchanan Street where emergency staff spent another 30 minutes attempting to revive Adachi.
Adachi was pronounced dead at 6:54 p.m. He was 59.
The following afternoon, a police officer stood outside the door at 46 Telegraph Place where an investigation into his death is underway.
“There are no signs of foul play,” police spokesperson Sgt. Michael Andraychak said.
His unexpected death devastated public officials and those who worked closest with him. On Saturday, staff attorneys at the Public Defender’s Office cried and hugged one another in the hallways of the office near the Hall of Justice. They built an altar to him at the entrance to the building.
Matt Gonzalez, chief attorney with the Public Defender’s Office, remembered his boss as “a fierce champion for justice.”
“He cared so deeply about the work,” Gonzalez said. “There’s really no other way of putting it.”
Gonzalez is expected to lead the Public Defender’s Office until Mayor London Breed appoints an interim successor to replace Adachi until the next public defender is elected.
Tamara Aparton, a former spokesperson for Adachi, remembered him as an unrelenting force in the courtroom who also loved art. Adachi had a sculpture of a metal rhinoceros decorating the wall in his office.
“The rhino was known as the most stubborn animal in the animal kingdom,” Aparton said. “He might have felt that was his totem.”
His love for art extended to filmmaking. He most recently made a documentary called Ricochet about the Kate Steinle trial, in which his office obtained an acquittal for an undocumented immigrant charged with murder. The verdict drew the scorn of President Donald Trump.
Gonzalez said Adachi had just finished writing a book about Frank Egan, the first public defender of San Francisco, appointed in 1922.
“He had a lot of energy,” Gonzalez said.
Aparton praised Adachi for creating a sort of “holistic defense office” that included mental health and immigration defense units.
“He really had this incredible vision of a well-funded, well-trained office that could actually get at the root of crime,” she said.
Adachi was raised in Sacramento, the son of a car mechanic and a laboratory assistant. In his teenage years, he held menial jobs including work plucking ducks.
Initially pursuing a business degree, Adachi graduated from U.C. Berkeley and later earned a law degree from U.C. Hastings College of the Law.
Adachi’s career in the Public Defender’s Office began when he was hired as deputy public defender in 1987. He served as chief attorney of the office from 1998 to 2001.
Adachi was first elected public defender in 2002, and has since been re-elected four times, including most recently last November. San Francisco is the only city in the state in which its residents elect their public defender.
In 2011, he ran for mayor but lost to the late Mayor Ed Lee.
Before his first run, Adachi briefly ran a private practice in the Fillmore, according to his friend of more than 25 years, the prominent civil rights attorney John Burris.
Burris remembered Adachi as a “guy’s guy” who liked cigars and good conversation. Burris said he and Adachi bought fedoras at the same Fillmore hat shop.
At times, Adachi would talk about the discrimination he experienced as a child due to his Japanese heritage, according to Burris.
“It may have been that he was moved and became passionate about representing both the underdog and disenfranchised because of his own sense of the discrimination he felt directed toward the Japanese in Sacramento,” said Burris.
Burris said that he admired the reputation that the office earned under Adachi’s leadership for “not settling cases by entering plea bargains.”
“He had to go to trial,” said Burris. “That made his relationship with the District Attorney’s Office not a great one.”
While Adachi faced adversity over his vocal criticism of the police force, he was by many accounts held in high regards within the communities he served.
In 2004, Adachi created a community building program called BMAGIC to help underserved youth and families in the Bayview. He replicated the program in the Fillmore and Western Addition neighborhoods two years later.
Fernando Marquez, a former BMAGIC program coordinator who Adachi hired in 2012, remembered Adachi as a “legend” in the neighborhood.
“People would stop and the community sometimes even mistook him for the mayor,” Marquez said.
SF Bay View newspaper Editor Mary Ratcliff had a long-working relationship with Adachi in which she would alert him to cases of police misconduct in the neighborhood. Ratcliff said he was “particularly conscious about racial stereotyping.”
“He was not black, but you’d think he was, the way he was adored by the black community,” Ratcliff said. “Nobody at City Hall is ever on black people’s side. Jeff was there to reverse that.”
Adachi is survived by his wife, Mutsuko, and his daughter, Lauren.
Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez contributed to this report.