Growing up in Sacramento, Jeff Adachi wrote pamphlets about his coin and stamp collections. As a teenager, he filmed his friends jumping off roofs. He would later become a passionate documentary filmmaker.
But what really shaped Adachi was the history of his parents and grandparents being forced into internment camps during World War II alongside thousands of other Japanese Americans on the West Coast, according to those who remembered him Monday at a memorial at City Hall.
“That injustice based on lies and a violation of our constitutional rights was one of the factors that led him to become a criminal defense attorney so that he could fight for justice for all,” said Paul Osaki of the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California.
Adachi, 59, died suddenly Feb. 22 after suffering an apparent heart attack at a Telegraph Hill apartment.
“When news first started to spread throughout the Japantown community of Jeff’s passing, everything stopped,” Osaki said. “It was as if you could feel the hearts break of an entire community.
“There was a sense of immeasurable loss,” he said.
Adachi was a lifelong public servant in San Francisco, having first joined the office as a deputy public defender in 1987 after graduating from UC Berkeley and attending law school at UC Hastings. The only elected public defender in California, he won election five times since 2002.
In his second year as elected public defender in 2004, he created BMagic, a program for underserved youth in the Bayview. He went on to champion pension reform and police accountability.
Three violinists played as family, staff attorneys and city officials filtered into seats beneath the City Hall dome for the memorial. Televisions showed snippets of a documentary Adachi made, Defender, about injustice in the criminal justice system. His staff wore black T-shirts with his face stenciled on the front and the words, “His fight lives on through us,” on the back. Earth, Wind and Fire played over the speaker system. His wife, Mutsuko, and daughter, Lauren, embraced in the front row as the ceremony began.
The crowd roared in applause when Matt Gonzalez, chief attorney under Adachi, took the podium. Gonzalez remembered Adachi as storyteller whose approach to criminal justice was guided by his understanding of the root problems that both his clients and people in general faced.
“Over the years, I’ve seen many times the power of the state get harnessed to put somebody into prison for a lengthy sentence,” Gonzalez said. “That is an awesome thing to stand up against, but Jeff would ask where was society when that young person needed help.”
For Mayor London Breed, Adachi was a “legend” in the Western Addition housing projects where she grew up. She first met Adachi at age 15 when he represented a friend in the courtroom. She later worked with him to improve public safety in the neighborhood in the early 2000s.
“Jeff was my friend and it’s always hard to lose a friend,” Breed said. “But even more than that, Jeff was always a champion for my community. Through all the years I knew him, he never lost the spirit of that man I met when I was 15 years old.”
When longtime Public Defender Jeff Brown stepped down in 2001, former Mayor Willie Brown Jr. appointed Kimiko Burton to replace him. But Adachi defeated Burton at the polls in 2002. Despite the conflict, Brown remembered Adachi as a standup friend who shared his love for film and a talented lawyer who nobly chose the public sector instead of the private.
“He was my lawyer,” Brown said. “Politicians should always have criminal defense lawyers. I understand that very clearly. And I only wanted the best.”
In 2011, Adachi released surveillance videos that allegedly showed police illegally entering rooms at residential hotels in San Francisco and stealing from residents. The videos led to an FBI investigation that, in 2015, eventually resulted in the revelation of racist and homophobic text messages sent between police officers.
The racist text scandal tarnished the reputation of the San Francisco Police Department and, along with a number of controversial police shootings, prompted a former police chief to ask for the U.S. Department of Justice to review the department in 2016. The recommendations that followed are still being implemented today.
Through all his political battles, Adachi continued to represent clients in the courtroom. Late last year he helped acquit a young attorney, Carlos Argueta, of murder for stabbing a man during a series of confrontations on Sixth Street. Adachi argued that the stabbing was an accident.
Under his leadership, Gonzalez and staff attorney Francisco Ugarte successfully took on one of the most politically divisive cases to reach San Francisco in years. In late 2017, a jury acquitted an undocumented immigrant named Jose Ines Garcia Zarate of murder in the shooting of Kate Steinle. President Donald Trump called the verdict “disgraceful.”
Adachi is also remembered for standing up for the families of those who were shot and killed by police. Last year, he blasted District Attorney George Gascon for declining to charge the officers who shot and killed Mario Woods and Luis Gongora Pat in 2015 and 2016 respectively.
Despite his storied career, Stan Adachi said at the memorial that he never saw that side of his brother.
“When we were together it was always about family,” he said. “A lot of what I heard this week and his impact to the community, Jeff didn’t really talk a lot about. And it has just amazed me this week. I have learned a lot.”
Breed is expected to appoint a successor to Adachi soon. Gonzalez is leading the Public Defender’s Office in the interim. In November, voters will elect a new public defender.