Jeff Adachi, the elected public defender of San Francisco, has died.
Mayor London Breed confirmed his death in a statement late Friday. He was 59.
A spokesperson for the Public Defender’s Office said Adachi had trouble breathing while out to dinner with a friend. He was taken to the hospital where he died.
“Everything you’ve heard about his drive and dedication about criminal justice reform and his respect for our clients is true,” said Katy St. Clair, a spokesperson for the office. “Our department is one of the leading lights among public defenders in the country and he elevated our goals and ethics to a level we all pushed ourselves to rise to.”
Adachi was one of the few elected public defenders in the country. He joined the office 33 years ago and had been sworn into his position five times since 2003.
“I am saddened to announce that San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi passed away tonight,” Breed said. “My heart goes out to his wife, Matsuko, his daughter, Lauren, and all his friends and family.”
Adachi was known as a stalwart of criminal justice reform and a frequent critic of police and prosecutorial misconduct. Despite leading the Public Defender’s Office, he also defended clients in the courtroom.
As recently as December, Adachi helped acquit an attorney named Carlos Argueta of murder after years of legal debates over the case. Adachi argued that Argueta stabbed a man on Sixth Street in 2015 on accident.
Argueta called his death “a huge, devastating loss.”
“He was the model of what a public defender should be,” Argueta said. “Even though he was the head of his office, he put so much time and attention and care into my case. He led by example and created a culture that is truly fighting for real criminal justice reform.”
His office is generally known for defending difficult cases including the shooting of Kate Steinle, in which Matt Gonzalez, chief attorney for the public defender’s office, succeeded in getting an acquittal on a murder charge for an undocumented immigrant who shot a San Francisco woman on Pier 14 in 2015.
Gonzalez successfully argued that the shooting was accidental.
On the side, Adachi also frequently made documentary films about social justice issues.
Last year, he played a key role in advocating for bail reform, not only in San Francisco but across the state.
He helped launch an immigrant defense unit providing free legal representation to those in San Francisco’s immigration court.
He served as a vocal critic of police shootings who called out instances of alleged racism in the Police Department, and brought to light allegations of brutality and misconduct in the Sheriff’s Department during his time in office.
On Friday night, elected officials expressed an outpouring of support for Adachi’s family, and remembrances of his life.
“Jeff always stood up for those who didn’t have a voice, have been ignored and overlooked, and who needed a real champion,” Breed said. “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.”
“I am deeply saddened by the unexpected news today,” District Attorney George Gascon said in a statement. “Jeff was a passionate and relentless advocate who always fought hard for what he believed in. He represented the underserved and gave his career to public service.”
“He was an amazing public servant and fierce advocate for those who had no representation and no voice,” said Assemblymember Phil Ting, in a statement.
In a Facebook post, Supervisor Shamann Walton said, “I just lost a true friend and a fierce fighter for all communities tonight.”
Former supervisor David Campos called Adachi’s loss “tragic,” adding he was “one of the greatest champions of the underdog.”
Adachi had a frequently contentious relationship with the San Francisco Superior Court and its judges.
Presiding Judge Garrett L. Wong on Friday called Adachi a “tireless advocate for all San Franciscans and passionate in his pursuit of justice in our city.”
“This is truly a sad day for all who benefitted from his ardent pursuit of justice,” Wong said.
Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez contributed to this story.