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IN MEMORIAM: Jeff Adachi, 1959 – 2019: ‘When Jeff had your back, you felt safe’

SAN FRANCISCO BAY VIEW — Jeff Adachi, a defense attorney of the highest magnitude, legendary for his sharp mind and soft, yet brave, heart, spoke to the dignity in every client, most of them the poorest of the poor, often visiting them personally in county jail. He is survived by his wife Mutsuko and his daughter Lauren.

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San Francisco’s pride, five-time elected Public Defender Jeff Adachi, wishes SF Bay View Publisher Dr. Willie Ratcliff a happy 82nd birthday at a reception prior to the Bay View’s awards show, Black Media Appreciation Night, on Sept. 13, 2014, at the African American Art & Culture Complex. – Photo: TaSin Sabir

By Katy St. Clair, San Francisco Bay View

San Francisco – It is with very heavy hearts that our office announces the passing of Public Defender and dedicated activist for criminal justice Jeff Adachi.

Jeff began in this office in 1987 as a deputy public defender and, through his drive and dedication, became a five-time elected Public Defender for San Francisco. He revolutionized our office, bringing in much-needed technology and greatly increasing crucial support staff such as paralegals, investigators and social workers.

Jeff knew how many public defender offices across the country were struggling with high caseloads, no resources and low morale, and he set a goal to not only overcome that here, but to create an agency that would become a guiding light for all other offices around the country. It worked. On a weekly basis we hear from public defenders as far-flung as North Carolina and Maine about how we inspire them to keep going.

He set a goal … to create an agency that would become a guiding light for all other offices around the country. It worked.

We do not yet have solid details as to the cause of his death, but we do know that he was out in North Beach at dinner with a friend when he began to have trouble breathing. EMTs were able to recover a pulse, but he later died at the hospital. He is survived by his wife Mutsuko and his daughter Lauren.

Jeff Adachi, a defense attorney of the highest magnitude, legendary for his sharp mind and soft, yet brave, heart, spoke to the dignity in every client, most of them the poorest of the poor, often visiting them personally in county jail.

We are also unsure how the office will be structured in the interim, but Chief Attorney Matt Gonzalez will continue to lead us on a day to day basis. One thing Jeff instilled in all of us was independence, hard work and a tireless adherence to doing everything we can for our clients. That can never, and will never, stop.

Chief Attorney Matt Gonzalez will continue to lead us on a day to day basis.

We are all devastated. Here are a few initial messages from staff:

“For over 20 years, Jeff was a mentor, a friend, an inspiration and a true leader – always bringing out the best in each and every one of us. He was always there, answering my late night texts and picking up midnight or early morning phone calls.

“He was one of the most compassionate, fierce, fearless, dedicated agents for social change this city has ever seen. He broke the mold, not making decisions based on political expediency but on simply what was right.

“There is no replacing a man of his magnitude, but he of all people would be the first to say, ‘Keep fighting on!’ There is too much work left to do. So we will fight on so that his work continues to be done and his vision of social justice is realized.” – Niki Solis, Deputy Public Defender

There is no replacing a man of his magnitude, but he of all people would be the first to say, ‘Keep fighting on!’ There is too much work left to do.

“I am still in shock and disbelief that Jeff Adachi passed last night. Much will be said about this once-in-a-generation hero in the coming days. The breadth of his accomplishments and the number of people he has personally touched is boundless.

Jeff Adachi was loved, admired and trusted as if he were “one of us,” as Black folks would often say, a true brother in the human family. Here he speaks at a Silence the Violence rally organized by United Playaz on June 18, 2009. – Photo: Francisco Da Costa

Jeff Adachi was loved, admired and trusted as if he were “one of us,” as Black folks would often say, a true brother in the human family. Here he speaks at a Silence the Violence rally organized by United Playaz on June 18, 2009. – Photo: Francisco Da Costa

Jeff Adachi was loved, admired and trusted as if he were “one of us,” as Black folks would often say, a true brother in the human family. Here he speaks at a Silence the Violence rally organized by United Playaz on June 18, 2009. – Photo: Francisco Da Costa

“At the public defender’s office, we knew he was always there for us, no matter what. We could do the most daring, radical and aggressive lawyering on behalf of the most marginalized people, even if that meant making powerful people angry – because he would have our back, always. And when Jeff had your back, you felt safe.

“He empowered us to vigorously fight for the rights of immigrants and the undocumented, and he knew the only way to defeat Trump and anti-immigrant forces was to stand up straight in their faces and fight back. On a personal level, his belief in me transformed my life and gave me a confidence in my own work I never dreamed possible. He made us believe in the impossible and empowered us to fight injustice with every ounce of our soul.

He made us believe in the impossible and empowered us to fight injustice with every ounce of our soul.

“No one lived life more fully than Jeff. And he would want us – in fact, he would demand us – to be strong. And we will be strong.” – A Deputy Public Defender in our Immigration Unit

“I am still processing this huge and devastating loss. I met Jeff Adachi before he took office as public defender and he hired me in 2003. At that time I barely understood the magnitude of his passion for the work that we do, and the breadth of his abilities and interests.

“He was a true renaissance man. But, at his core, Jeff lived and breathed public defense, and he was visionary in reimagining and implementing the work that a public defender’s office can do in support of justice and our indigent clients.

“Jeff created social service networks for underprivileged youth and summer camps and backpack giveaways, stocked the office with a team of social workers and support staff for clients, created the first clean slate program to expunge clients’ old convictions – that became a national model – a bail unit that interviewed clients and their families as soon as they were arrested rather than days later, a cadre of top immigration lawyers to fight deportations … the list goes on and on.

“He was the most inspiring (and demanding) person I have ever encountered – motivated by his steadfast pursuit of justice for our clients and fueled by his indefatigable spirit. Nothing on this earth could stop him when he believed in his cause.

Jeff Adachi traced the roots of his clients accused of crime, especially his Black clients, back to the hostility and humiliation they faced at school from some of the first adults they knew outside their family and neighbors. To help prevent the alienation of those children, he found ways to make them feel as if some people in high places care and support their highest aspirations. He created B’MAGIC and MO’MAGIC, nonprofits serving San Francisco’s two main Black neighborhoods, Bayview Hunters Point and the Fillmore, with annual backpack giveaways, science fairs, book fairs and giveaways, even prom nights for high school students – fancy dress clothes provided! Here, he’s talking with a family at the B’MAGIC backpack giveaway in Youngblood Coleman Park on Aug. 15, 2015.

Jeff Adachi traced the roots of his clients accused of crime, especially his Black clients, back to the hostility and humiliation they faced at school from some of the first adults they knew outside their family and neighbors. To help prevent the alienation of those children, he found ways to make them feel as if some people in high places care and support their highest aspirations. He created B’MAGIC and MO’MAGIC, nonprofits serving San Francisco’s two main Black neighborhoods, Bayview Hunters Point and the Fillmore, with annual backpack giveaways, science fairs, book fairs and giveaways, even prom nights for high school students – fancy dress clothes provided! Here, he’s talking with a family at the B’MAGIC backpack giveaway in Youngblood Coleman Park on Aug. 15, 2015.

He was the most inspiring (and demanding) person I have ever encountered – motivated by his steadfast pursuit of justice for our clients and fueled by his indefatigable spirit.

“By his example, Jeff made me a better person, and he made me think, every day, how I could be a better public defender. He may be gone from this earth, but his legacy will endure. I promise you that, Jeff Adachi. My heart is broken, but not my resolve and commitment to continue the fight for fairness and justice for the clients that you loved so much.” – Tal Klement, Deputy Public Defender

“I feel blessed to have been hired by Jeff and to have had the opportunity to work closely with and learn from him. He continually pushed himself and our staff to do the very best for our clients. Equally importantly, his connection to the community and commitment to civil rights and racial justice leave a far reaching legacy that has and will continue to support individual and collective freedom efforts. His life was a beautiful one.” –Felony Manager Mano Raju

Katy St. Clair, public information officer for the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, can be reached at Katy.StClair@sfgov.org.

“Innocent Until Proven Guilty”: The San Francisco Public Defender’s Office launched this campaign on July 14, 2010, to remind citizens of their constitutional protections, including the presumption of innocence. This video was produced by Tom Donald Films for Public Defender Jeff Adachi.

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