Jeff Adachi, a tireless advocate for equal justice, passed away suddenly on Feb. 22, 2019 at 59 years old. He was the elected public defender of San Francisco, a filmmaker and author, and a beloved husband, father, son, brother and friend.
Jeff was born Aug. 29, 1959. His parents and grandparents were among the nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans forced into internment camps during World War II. Learning of their ordeal would cement Jeff’s lifelong commitment to due process and the right to counsel.
Jeff’s advocacy for the accused bloomed as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley after joining a student movement to free Chol Soo Lee, a Korean immigrant wrongly convicted of murder. Jeff earned his bachelor’s degree from UC Berkeley in 1981 and his Juris Doctor from UC Hastings in 1985. He was hired as a deputy public defender at the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office in 1986 and served as the office’s chief attorney from 1998 to 2001.
He was elected Public Defender of the City and County of San Francisco in 2002 and took office on Jan. 8, 2003 following two years in private practice. Under his strong leadership and fierce advocacy, the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office became a national model of holistic defense. Jeff battled on the steps of City Hall for adequate funding, in Sacramento for laws favoring treatment over incarceration, and in court for the clients he personally represented. He tried more than 150 jury trials and handled more than 3,000 criminal matters in his career, including some of the Bay Area’s highest profile cases. Today, more than 23,000 people each year rely on the office and the innovative services Jeff instituted. These programs include in-house social workers; expungement and reentry programs; and literacy, health and recreation opportunities for low-income youth. Specialized teams of attorneys devote their expertise to juvenile defense, education advocacy, immigration, mental health, bail, and pretrial release.
Jeff was an advocate for racial justice and a watchdog against police and prosecutorial misconduct. Surveillance footage he turned over to the press and public led to federal investigations and criminal convictions against law enforcement officers who brutalized or stole from citizens, conducted warrantless searches, or fabricated evidence.
He served on the board of numerous professional organizations over his career, including the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants, the National Board of Trial Advocacy, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the National Association for Public Defense, and the California Public Defenders Association. He is the co-author of Chapter 25: Immunity for Testimony, in California Criminal Law Procedure and Practice. He was a BAR/BRI bar review professor for more than two decades and published five books on passing the bar exam. He recently completed two additional manuscripts—his autobiography and a biography of San Francisco’s first public defender, Frank Egan, who would later be convicted of murder.
Jeff garnered numerous local, state and national awards for outstanding public service, managerial excellence, prisoner reentry, youth advocacy, and transparency.
Jeff was an award-winning documentary filmmaker. He wrote, produced and directed The Slanted Screen, a 2006 film that explored stereotypes of Asian men in American cinema. In 2009, he directed You Don’t Know Jack: The Jack Soo Story and in 2016 made the short film America Needs a Racial Facial. His 2017 film, Defender, focused on his defense of a young black man following a racially charged encounter with police and followed the work of the office’s fledgling immigration unit. Ricochet, to be released later this year, chronicles the tragic death of Kate Steinle and the trial of the immigrant accused of her murder. In addition to his own creative projects, Jeff provided opportunities to other artists through his work with California Humanities the Center for Asian American Media.
He is survived by Mutsuko “Muki” Adachi, his wife of 21 years; his daughter Lauren Adachi, a freshman at Brown University in Providence; his parents Sam and Gladys Adachi of Sacramento; and his brother Stan Adachi of Long Beach. He is also remembered by thousands of legal professionals across the country who benefitted from his mentorship, encouragement, and training and who will continue his legacy in the fight for justice.
A public memorial will be held Monday, March 4 at 11 a.m. at San Francisco City Hall. The family desires that a fellowship in Jeff’s name be created to aid deserving young law students and lawyers. In lieu of flowers, a tax-deductible donation payable to “AABA Law Foundation – Adachi” may be mailed to Prather Law Offices, 245 Fifth Street, Suite 103, San Francisco, CA 94103. Donations in Jeff’s name may also be made to gofundme.com/jeff-adachi-legacy-fund.