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Jeff Adachi’s legacy: An army of public defenders

Longtime San Francisco public defender Jeff Adachi was memorialized at City Hall and during a vigil last week. He died on February 22 of what appears to be a heart attack. He fought to bring accountability to law enforcement and representation to the accused. 

The vigil for Jeff Adachi last Wednesday began on 7th Street outside the public defender’s office. It started with a saxophone solo, and then an Aztec dance. A poster of a smiling Jeff Adachi — and his signature slicked-back, black hair — was framed with flowers.

A champion for immigrant rights

It was a vigil, but it felt halfway between a celebration, and a rallying cry for police accountability and criminal justice reform. The public defender’s office formed a backdrop for the night, and hundreds of people who show up spilled out into the streets.

Angela Chan, the policy director and a senior staff attorney at the Asian Law Caucus, went up to the mic.

“From the moment I met Jeff over twelve years ago, I was inspired by him,” Chan said. “I was incredibly proud that San Francisco’s elected public defender was an Asian-American.”

Credit Holly J. McDede / KALW
Angela Chan is the policy director and a senior staff attorney managing the Criminal Justice Reform Program at Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus.

Adachi was first elected to the office of Public Defender in 2002. He was the only elected public defender in California.

Adachi’s Japanese-American parents and grandparents were rounded up and forced into internment camps during the Second World War. Adachi has said learning about that history caused him to question justice in America.

“He knew all too well the injustices that take place when the government is allowed to lock people up based on the color of their skin or the country they immigrated from,” Chan says.

In defense of sanctuaries

Chan recalled how Adachi defended the city’s sanctuary city ordinance at a time when few public officials did. Back in 2008, Edwin Ramos, an undocumented immigrant, was charged with a triple-murder. Ramos had been found guilty of two felonies as a juvenile. In response, then-mayor Gavin Newsom ordered juveniles suspected of crimes turned over to immigration authorities.

“Jeff was the only elected official to turn up to City Hall to advocate before the Board of Supervisors to end this policy of separating children from their families,” Chan remembered.

Adachi convinced the Board of Supervisors to fund representation for undocumented immigrants. In 2017, the public defender’s office launched the Immigration Defense Unit, one of only a handful of units like it in the country that defends immigrants facing deportation.

Spotlighting police abuse and misconduct

Chan also remembered how Adachi exposed police abuse and misconduct. Back in 2011, Adachi released footage of police illegally entering a single room occupancy hotel. Adachi uncovered recordings of police stealing suspects’ valuables, drugs, and falsifying police reports. Six San Francisco police officers were eventually indicted over illegal hotel searches.

Dozens of racist and homophobic text messages between officers were also uncovered during the investigation into that scandal.

He unraveled the SFPD racism texting scandal that made it impossible to deny that racial bias was real in our police department,” Chan said.

In 2016, when more racist and bigoted text messages exchanged by San Francisco police officers were discovered, Jeff Adachi ordered his office to review potentially tainted arrests.

“We lost a good one”

During the vigil, Gwendolyn Woods stepped up to the podium. Her son, Mario Woods, was shot and killed by San Francisco police officers in 2015. Adachi criticized the police department after her son’s death, and the District Attorney’s decision not to press charges. Woods turned to Adachi’s wife, who stood a few feet away, and spoke to her directly.

Credit Holly J. McDede / KALW
Gwendolyn Woods remembers Jeff Adachi as someone with the courage to go head-to-head with police, prosecutors, and the well-oiled money bail industry.

“There is nothing worse than burying a loved one, but you be proud in his memory, Ms. Adachi, you be proud in his memory. We lost a good one,” Woods told her. “There are black and brown and poor communities that would believe your husband more than they’d trust a pastor. We have to continue his legacy.”

Social justice films

San Francisco public defender Jacque Wilson spoke about Adachi’s passion for filmmaking. Adachi has compared picking up a camera to shoot a movie to preparing for a case in the courtroom. Both directing films and presenting evidence involve storytelling.

“Jeff was a man of many talents,” Wilson said. “And Jeff understood the power of images. He touched us with his movies, he made us know that we could do better.”

Adachi’s feature film "The Slanted Screen" (2005) and "You Don't Know Jack: The Jack Soo Story" (2009) look into Asian-American representation in Hollywood. But Wilson’s favorite film by Adachi is “Racial Facial,” an 8-minute film telling the history of racism in America.

Adachi had recently wrapped up filming for “Ricochet,” a documentary about the Kate Steinle murder trial. That case became a flashpoint over immigration during the 2016 presidential race. Public defenders in Adachi's office won the acquittal of the man accused of shooting Steinle in 2018. The film will be released later this year.

“Long live Jeff Adachi,” Wilson said to the crowd.

Credit Holly J. McDede
Longtime San Francisco public defender Jacque Wilson

Continuing the fight at the San Francisco public defender’s office

Wilson was one of the first public defenders hired by Adachi back in 2003, and he remembered looking up to him from his very first interview for the job.

“It was as if he was a gladiator,” Wilson said. “I always wanted to be here. When he hired me, it was like coming up to the big leagues, the major leagues.”

Adachi more than doubled the budget of the public defender’s office during his time there.

“For the last sixteen years I was in Adachi’s army, and it’s the best army in the whole world,” Wilson said. “He’s made this a public defender promised land.

Public defenders like Wilson pledged to honor their former boss’s legacy by continuing to fight for the accused.

During the vigil, the song Fight the Power by Public Enemy played from a speaker system. .The message was not lost on Wilson.

“He taught us to fight, fight, fight, never be satisfied, always ask more, always expect more,” said Wilson. “That’s the legacy of Jeff Adachi. Like the song says, ‘Fight the powers that be.’ That’s his spirit.”

Throughout the night, Adachi was described as a courtroom gladiator, a warrior-lawyer, and a real-life superhero.

In November, there will be an election for San Francisco’s next public defender. Whoever wins will have some big shoes to fill.

Audio Academy Fellow JoAnn DeLuna contributed reporting for this piece. She also attended a separate March 4 memorial for Adachi and shared her report on Crosscurrents. Listen to the audio player above for the full story.