San Francisco Shocked by Heroic Public Defender's Sudden Death and Police Response
The aftermath of a crusading public defender's sudden death has shocked and disturbed critics of the criminal justice system.
“Adachi should be remembered for his lifelong defense of those abused and incarcerated by a brutal and racist criminal justice system.”
San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi died suddenly on Friday, February 26, causing shock waves among all those who knew and admired his pioneering work in criminal justice reform. Public defenders offices around the country look to his example and frequently call the San Francisco office for guidance.
Adachi took his job seriously. He made sure that every defendant represented by his office got the best trial possible—not just a plea deal—and he wasn’t afraid to go up against the police. He once astonished me by answering the phone and talking about a case I was covering for KPFA Radio-Berkeley from 7 to 8 pm on a Saturday night. He was that dedicated and generous with his time.
“He wasn’t afraid to go up against the police.”
Adachi was also a founding member of San Francisco’s Reentry Council, which aims to ease former prisoners' transition back into society with more than a “flying fifty [$].” He created programs to encourage at-risk kids, mostly kids of color in poor neighborhoods, to aspire high and avoid entering the criminal justice system.Among those programs were Back-to-School Celebrations including backpack and school supplies giveaways. He argued a precedent-setting case to eliminate the inequities inherent in California’s monetary bail system.
He made a film, Ricochet, about the trial of José Inez García Zárate, an undocumented Mexican immigrant accused of shooting and killing a young woman, Kathryn Steinle, on Pier 14 in San Francisco. Before Zárate’s acquittal, President Trump shamelessly jumped on the case to fuel his national anti-immigrant crusade.
Zárate is a dark-skinned Spanish speaker of visually indeterminate race, but the person who called 911 from the pier identified him as an African American.
“Adachi told the press, ‘We do have a Ferguson problem in San Francisco.’”
“Coming Home While Black,” a recent report by Katy St. Clair, Public Information Officer for the public defender’s office, appears on the office website. It’s the story of a Black man returning to his apartment building after being acquitted of all charges against him only to be refused entry by a security guard.
On May 2016, after a rash of police killings of Black and Latino youth, Adachi told the press, “We do have a Ferguson problemin San Francisco.”
Willie Ratcliff, publisher of San Francisco Bay View, a Black newspaper that focuses especially on racist police violence and mass incarceration, has often said, “Black people love Jeff Adachi.” Adachi himself attributed much of his motivation to his own experience as the son of Japanese Americans interned in a miserable concentration camp during World War II.
Investigation into Adachi’s death
The circumstances of Jeff Adachi’s death remain murky. This week it came out that he had tried to fire Christopher Wirowek, Chief of Operations in the Medical Examiner’s Office, for lying during a homicide case several weeks before his death. Nevertheless, Wirowek is now investigating his death with the help of San Francisco Police, whom Adachi often challenged.
Bay Area broadcast media have covered a police report full of tawdry details —that he died in a North Beach apartment with a woman who was not his wife, that there were various intoxicating substances in the apartment and a receipt for t-shirts bought in Bogota, Colombia. Matt Gonzalez, the Chief Attorney in Gonzalez’s office who is now the Acting Public Defender, told the press, “It has been disappointing to hear—I’ve been told, I don’t know if it’s true—that the police or members of the department, who did not like Jeff, have been trying to spread rumors, trying to make the circumstances of his death more salacious and trying to suggest all kinds of misconduct. I guess that’s what happens when you’ve been a fighter against them and battled them the way he did.”
Gonzalez later expressed concern about the investigation into Adachi's death and said, “I've had a lot of cases over the years and this is not normal." Now the SFPD are investigating what they say was an unauthorized release of the police reportthat has been prominently featured on local broadcast news. No one has publicly suggested foul play in Adachi’s death, and Gonzalez has said he believes it was caused by some sort of heart attack.
“The police have been trying to spread rumors, trying to make the circumstances of his death more salacious and trying to suggest all kinds of misconduct.”
There will no doubt be huge attendance and outpouring at Adachi’s memorial service on a date as yet to be determined. Setting aside the mysterious circumstances of his death, he should be remembered for his lifelong defense of those abused and incarcerated by a brutal and racist criminal justice system. In November 2018, he penned this letter to San Francisco Mayor London Breed to oppose a proposal to transfer inmates from San Francisco to Alameda County if a particular San Francisco jail were permanently closed:
“November 2, 2018
“Dear Mayor Breed,
“It has come to my attention that you may be considering approving the transfer of some inmates from the SF County Jail, many of whom are our clients, to Santa Rita or Glen E. Dyer Jails in Alameda County. Although I am keenly aware of the poor condition of SF County Jail #4 and the need to close it as soon as possible, I urge you to reject the proposal to transfer people to Alameda County.
“My staff and I visit clients at County Jail #4 on a daily basis, and can see for ourselves how inadequate and potentially dangerous that facility is. But, the option of transferring our clients to Alameda County is much worse. There are many reasons for this:
“Legal representation of our clients. The San Francisco Public Defender’s Office prides itself in having the highest standards of criminal defense, not just among public defenders but among all criminal defense attorneys. But, we cannot provide excellent service to our clients without access to them. Our staff of 103 attorneys need to meet with our in-custody clients regularly to develop their defense. At present, we visit our clients around the corner at 7th and Bryant, and also must travel to the San Bruno Jail. Having to travel to Dublin and Oakland as well would mean much more travel time for attorneys and travel expense for the City, and because our attorneys already have large caseloads, compromised defense for our clients. I was working as a Deputy Public Defender in the early 1990’s when San Francisco, for a brief time, housed clients in Alameda. I can personally attest that it was disastrous decision which was reversed after just a few weeks, since it was impossible for clients to be properly represented by our attorneys.
“All of our clients are indigent, and traveling to Dublin will be a hardship for their families and communities.”
“Access to families and loved ones. There is an overwhelming consensus that having strong community, family and support systems correlates greatly to lower recidivism and better outcomes in general. All of our clients are indigent, and traveling to Dublin will be a hardship for their families and communities. This will result in less contact with support systems, faith communities, mentors, etc. and ultimately poorer outcomes for our clients. Children will have less contact with their incarcerated parents causing trauma for them. In fact, the lack of family contact and community support will inevitably convince more clients to plead guilty in cases they could have won, just to get back to their loved ones.
“Risk of illegal entanglement with Immigration & Customs Enforcement. San Francisco is a Sanctuary City and all government departments, including our Sheriff’s Department, are committed to this policy. Sadly, the same cannot be said for the Alameda County Sheriff. Non-citizens there are routinely apprehended by ICE upon their release from Santa Rita, and then subjected to indefinite detention and deportation—even if the non-citizen is ultimately acquitted of the charges against them or if those charges are dropped. San Francisco should not contract with any facility, such as Santa Rita, that has such an abysmal track record of colluding with ICE and its deportation machine.
“Non-citizens in Alameda County are routinely apprehended by ICE upon their release from Santa Rita, and then subjected to indefinite detention and deportation.”
“The Alameda County jails are notoriously plagued by abuses and substandard conditions. Besides the additional cost of sending people to Alameda, San Francisco will expose itself to lawsuits from inmates and civil rights advocates. Just within the past year and a half:
“* Four Alameda County Sheriff’s Deputies were charged with felony assault under the color of authority for abusing inmates. Two of them were also charged with witness intimidation and conspiracy to obstruct justice. (East Bay Times, 9/5/17)
“* Another Sheriff’s Deputy was charged with assault by a public officer and assault with force likely to cause great bodily injury for staging an attack on an inmate by other inmates. (East Bay Times, 9/7/18)
“* 386 inmates were taken away by ICE after the Alameda County Sheriff shared their release information with that agency. (KCBS Radio, 10/2/18)
“* The Alameda District Attorney filed charges against a Sheriff’s office sergeant for illegally recording conversations between minors and their attorneys. (Oaklandnorth.net, 10/5/18)
“* A woman in labor was locked in solitary confinement and gave birth alone in a cold, dirty concrete cell after guards ignored her cries for help. She and several other women have filed suit against the Santa Rita jail for abuses while they were pregnant. (SF Chronicle, 8/20/18)
“San Francisco has among the highest bails in the country.”
“San Francisco does not need to send County inmates to Alameda. There are better solutions:
“Release people who are eligible for bail. The California Court of appeals in the Humphreydecision said that no one should be held in jail pretrial just because they cannot afford bail. Yet over 80% of the San Francisco jail population is being held pre-trial. Hundreds of these people are bail-eligible yet are being held in custody, because San Francisco has among the highest bails in the country. The Humphreydecision also held that the court should consider the least restrictive release conditions necessary to ensure public safety and a return to court. A wide array of release conditions are available here in San Francisco. The court or the sheriff should make use of these options to release anyone to Pretrial Services who is bail-eligible.
“Prioritize Public Health treatment beds over jail beds. According to DPH’s presentation to the Work Group to Re-envision the Jail, an average of close to 200 people on any given day are sitting in SF County Jails waiting for transfer to behavioral health facilities. According to the DA’s presentation at the same meeting, individuals in Behavioral Health Court wait in jail an average of 120 days waiting for a bed in the community. The County must commit resources to getting people out of jail who need treatment. Both DPH facilities and community providers should be utilized. Jail is the worst possible place for people suffering from mental illness and substance abuse problems.
“People living on our streets need appropriate supportive housing, not jail beds.”
“Provide supportive housing rather than cycling the unhoused in and out of jail. By all accounts, more than a third of the people in County jail at any time are homeless at the time of arrest. Many more are made homeless by their incarceration. The jail is an inappropriate, harmful and expensive solution to San Francisco’s homelessness crisis. People living on our streets need appropriate supportive housing, not jail beds.
“San Francisco needs to be at the forefront of the movement to end mass incarceration. We need to stop dealing with poverty and public health problems by throwing people in jail. Neither building a new jail nor moving people to a substandard jail in another county will solve these problems. San Francisco needs to lead the way on this issue.
“Thank you for your consideration and I look forward to continuing to work with you on criminal justice reform.
Jeff Adachi, San Francisco Public Defender”
According to the Public Defenders's Office, Adachi was trying to head that idea off at the pass. No San Francisco inmates have been transferred to Alameda County jails yet, and Mayor London Breed has not responded definitively in one way or another.
Ann Garrison is an independent journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 2014, she received the Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza Democracy and Peace Prizefor her reporting on conflict in the African Great Lakes region. She can be reached at [email protected].
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