S.F. Public Defender Jeff Adachi, tireless social justice advocate and filmmaker, dies

San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi, whose David v. Goliath campaign for his seat in 2002 catapulted the longtime community activist into a highly visible city position, died Feb. 22, 2019 after falling ill during a dinner with a friend in the city’s North Beach area. He was 59.

Recently deceased San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi at the United For Compassion Japantown vigil against post-election hate, Nov. 22, 2016 in San Francisco’s Japantown. photo by David Toshiyuki

Described by many as a social warrior, Adachi began to have trouble breathing during dinner, according to Katy St. Clair, spokeswoman for the public defender’s office. Emergency crews were able to recover a pulse but Adachi later died at the hospital, St. Clair said Feb. 23. A cause of death has not been released.

Immediately following his sudden passing, accolades for Adachi rolled in from city and state officials

San Francisco Mayor London Breed said Adachi “always stood up for those who didn’t have a voice, have been ignored and overlooked, and who needed a real champion.”

In a statement, Breed said Adachi “was committed not only to the fight for justice in the courtroom, but he was also a relentless advocate for criminal justice reform.”

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), a former San Francisco district attorney who is now running for president, said she admired Adachi. “Jeff was a national leader in advocating for the rights of the accused and due process, an outspoken fighter for justice and police accountability, and a fierce and talented advocate for his clients,” Harris stated.

Colleagues were devastated by news of Adachi’s death and described him as fearless

“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,” said San Francisco Deputy Public Defender Niki Solis.

Adachi brought in much-needed technology to the office, along with increased numbers of support staff such as paralegals, investigators, and social workers, a release from the public defender’s office said.

“Jeff knew how many public defender offices across the country were struggling with high case-loads, 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,” a release from the public defender’s office said.

Taking on the Machine
Adachi was chief assistant public defender — second in command — when his boss and then-San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Brown was appointed by then-Gov. Gray Davis to the state’s Public Utilities Commission in 2001. This led to then-San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown appointing Kimiko Burton — daughter of then-state Sen. John Burton — to fill Jeff Brown’s seat as the city’s public defender, despite her relative inexperience.

In one of her first moves, she fired Adachi, who would become her opponent in the 2002 election, setting up a highly-contested battle between two candidates of Japanese descent for the state’s only elected public defender position.

But with virtually all of the Democratic Party establishment backing Burton, the daughter of one of the most powerful politicians in the state, Adachi led an inspired campaign to win the seat in March 2002, and went on to become a five-time elected public defender for the city.

He was also elected in August 2016 to a three-year term on the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers Board of Directors

Adachi received many local, state and national awards, including the American Bar Association Hodson Award for Public Service, and California Public Defenders Association Program of the Year Award, according to the defense lawyers’ association.

Early Seeds of Social Justice
A 1977 graduate of C.K. McClatchy High School in Sacramento, Adachi matriculated to the University of California at Berkeley.

He became housemates in the fall of 1978 with his McClatchy classmate, David Kakishiba, and Curtis Okamoto. “(It) was always clear to me that Jeff was a fighter and he was determined,” Kakishiba, now the executive director of the East Bay Asian Youth Center in Oakland, told the Nichi Bei Weekly.

Shortly after moving into their apartment in the fall of 1978, Adachi and Kakishiba read the writing of Asian American investigative journalist KW Lee in their hometown newspaper, the Sacramento Union, which would have a life-altering impact. Lee had written about a Korean immigrant who was wrongly accused of a murder in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

“My roommate David Kakishiba and myself first became aware of the Chol Soo Lee’s case when we read KW’s article on ‘Alice in Chinatown,’” Adachi recently told the Nichi Bei Weekly. “We called KW and asked to meet with him, drove up to Sacramento and met with him.

Adachi and Kakishiba would join other young Asian American activists on the Chol Soo Lee Defense Committee.

“We rallied, protested, and created a community of support for Chol Soo,” said Ranko Yamada, currently a non-practicing attorney in the Bay Area who was a central figure in the committee. “Jeff’s commitment to Chol Soo Lee’s freedom never lagged, even through the dark times of Chol Soo’s conviction of murder for the death of prisoner Morrison Needham, or during the long waits in limbo between trial dates, when some others lost interest.

“The committees ended sometime after our historic victory with Chol Soo’s release in 1983,” Yamada recalled. “Jeff continued to stay in touch and support Chol Soo, who had no experience living outside of prison as an adult. He was not in the fight for only the good times.

Adachi credits that first national pan-Asian movement, and the writings of KW Lee, for steering him into a career path of justice.

“I don’t think I would have become a public defender but for my involvement in the Chol Soo Lee movement, and KW’s writings, which gave spark to the movement and moved so many like myself to get involved,” Adachi told the Nichi Bei Weekly.

“It’s sheer karma that Jeff, fresh from local high school, happened to catch my 1978 investigative report on the ‘Alice in Chinatown’ gangland murder case in the now-defunct Sacramento Union,” recalled KW Lee, now 90, upon Adachi’s passing. “I knew Jeff was on his way to his own down-dirt lawyering for the unpopular, the unheard, the unprotected, the unwashed and the undocumented.

Adachi graduated from Hastings College of the Law in 1985 and attended undergraduate studies at UC Berkeley. He started in 1987 as deputy public defender.

Musical Vision
In order to help raise funds for Chol Soo Lee’s defense, Adachi came up with an idea: to make a 45-RPM record about Chol Soo Lee, which Kakishiba funded.

Adachi would approach several artists, including Robert Kikuchi-Yngojo, who would expand the lyrics “for better rhyming, a stronger refrain, and rhythm,” recalled Kikuchi-Yngojo, who would handle the vocals along with Sammy Takimoto and Sui Wai Andersen, while Peter Horikoshi played guitar and Duke Santos played congo drums.

In addition to writing the original song and spearheading the project, Adachi played bass guitar on the track.

“The power of this song is that though it references specifically wrongly accused Cho Soo Lee, it definitely speaks to the mass incarceration of disenfranchised people in communities of color: ‘He’s not the only one, nor does he stand alone…,’” Kikuchi-Yngojo told the Nichi Bei Weekly. “His words still ring true especially today, as they did 40 years ago…”

Supporter of the Arts
In the Bay Area, Adachi would become involved as a board member of the Asian American Theater Company, and he established the Asian American Arts Foundation in the 1990s “which recognized Asian American artists in various fields and raised money for emerging artists and organizations in the community,” remembered JK Yamamoto, the then-English section editor of the Hokubei Mainichi in San Francisco who now is a staff writer at the Rafu Shimpo in Los Angeles.

The Asian American Arts Foundation was best known for the Golden Ring Awards, an Asian American version of the Emmys, Oscars, Tonys and Grammys, all at once, which were presented in 1995, 1997 and 1999, Yamamoto said.

“These events, complete with a red carpet, did have the air of those major awards shows, with a who’s who of Asian and Asian American entertainers participating as honorees, presenters or performers,” Yamamoto said. “Where else could you see Kristi Yamaguchi presenting an award to Margaret Cho?”

Honorees would include the likes of director John Woo, actors Tamlyn Tomita, Joan Chen, Ming-Na Wen and James Shigeta; playwrights Philip Kan Gotanda and David Henry Hwang; and others.

In addition to his accomplishments as a lawyer and political figure, Adachi’s advocacy for the arts was also a major part of his legacy, Yamamoto said. “I don’t know how he managed to do it, but in addition to his activities as a public defender, (he) devoted a lot of his time to Asian American representation in the arts.”

Adachi’s interest in the arts led him to become a filmmaker, making a number of documentaries that covered both Asian American representation and social justice issues.

He started with “The Slanted Screen” (2006), a look at anti-Asian male stereotypes in Hollywood; “You Don’t Know Jack: The Jack Soo Story” (2009), on the “Barney Miller” and “Flower Drum Song” actor whose real name was Goro Suzuki; “America Needs a Racial Facial” (2016), a short film on race in America; and “Defender” (2017), a look at his own challenges to defend victims of racism and implicit bias.

Legal Leadership
Adachi was heralded by many. He oversees an office of nearly 100 lawyers and 100 support staff.

“Jeff was not just a brilliant leader of the Public Defender’s Office but also a consummate trial lawyer — fearless, creative, indefatigable and very clever,” said civil rights attorney Dale Minami, who along with legal partner Don Tamaki met Adachi in an Asian American studies they taught some 40 years ago. “It is rare for an elected Public Defender (or District Attorney) to actually try cases but Jeff did, and did so successfully. To run a large law office AND try cases is a huge challenge but Jeff managed to do both brilliantly.

Minami said Adachi was “more than just a public servant” but also a “community and political activist.”

“Jeff should be remembered for his skillful and aggressive defense of the accused, the marginalized and the example he set as a lawyer for other criminal defense attorneys,” said Minami.

Dean Ito Taylor, executive director of the Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach, was “surprised” by his drive to elected office, but saw “great potential” in Adachi, who volunteered for the organization even before entering law school.

“Once elected, Jeff’s leadership and vision moved the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office toward its full potential,” Ito Taylor told the Nichi Bei Weekly. “Criminal defense work for the most powerless was at its core but the office expanded its role in preventing crime, promoting rehabilitation, offering positive alternatives to youth, and keeping law enforcement accountable.

“Jeff’s Japanese American heritage enabled him to see the ongoing threat to immigrants and to empathize with those targeted by an anti-immigrant federal government just as his family had been targeted,” Ito Taylor added. “The San Francisco Public Defender’s Office became one of the few in the country defending recent immigrants against the unjust treatment of the federal government. Further, one of Jeff’s lasting legacies will be the great number of people of color and recent immigrants or descendants of immigrant families who work for the Public Defender’s Office.”

“Jeff will be remembered as a tireless advocate for the vulnerable and marginalized,” said Emily Murase, director of the San Francisco Department on the Status of Women, who first met Adachi when he had just graduated law school. “The progressive work that Jeff did on reforming the criminal justice system has changed so many lives.”

Community Remembrances
With the sudden passing of Adachi at such a young age, a community has been left in shock, in sadness. He was scheduled to present certificates from the city to filmmakers at the Nichi Bei Foundation’s Films of Remembrance the following day.

“I didn’t agree with everything Jeff did, and we held differing views on many subjects,” recalled Ranko Yamada, who worked alongside Adachi in the movement to free Chol Soo Lee. “That’s nothing compared to my admiration and respect of him, for his unfailing, fearless advocacy for those most vulnerable in our society. I deeply mourn his passing. We lost a remarkable warrior.”

Steve Nakajo recalls giving Adachi a broom to help clean up the streets as a volunteer for Nihonmachi Street Fair. Nakajo marveled at what he would become. “If you need representation to fight for your rights, for justice for a champion of due process … Jeff Adachi was the man you wanted in your corner,” said Nakajo, now executive director of the Japantown Task Force, Inc.

“Jeff was my hero,” said Paul Osaki, executive director, Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California. “He was a Japanese American Sansei Superman. He was fearless. … If there was ever an issue in Japantown I could always count on his support regardless how popular or controversial it was with others.”

Osaki recalled Adachi’s support to try to save the Japantown Bowl and Japantown in general — particularly when much of it was up for sale in 2006. “Because he was … in city government his voice was huge.”

“That guy was never afraid to take on difficult issues that he knew would result in criticism,” remembered Jon Osaki, the executive director of the Japantown-based Japanese Community Youth Council. “But, he was a man of conviction and one that was committed to holding the justice system and the City accountable.”

Adachi’s passing will leave a “huge void in the areas of social justice and criminal justice reform; his ability to advocate for issues because it’s the right thing to do and not what’s politically expedient was admired by many,” said Japantown Task Force President Sandy Mori.

“We are all still in shock over Jeff’s unexpected death,” said Cathy Inamasu, executive director of Nihonmachi Little Friends, where Adachi’s daughter Lauren — now a freshman at Brown University — attended preschool for two years. “Jeff and Mutsuko were very instrumental in our first Capital Campaign for our historic 1830 Sutter Street Issei Women’s Building, and have been supporters ever since. We all feel a huge loss.”

“He refused to play politics with his principles, remain unmoved in his convictions and was not intimidated by the powerful and connected,” said John Hayashi, president of the San Francisco chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League.

Remembered for Activism
Adachi became the honorary co-chair of the “Comfort Women” Justice Coalition, which recently helped to install a “comfort women” memorial in San Francisco despite political pressure from Japan.

“As the highest ranking Japanese American elected official in San Francisco, his support was extremely important to the movement, attacked by some as Japan bashing,” stated “Comfort Women” Justice Coalition Co-Chairs Lillian Sing and Julie Tang, both retired San Francisco Superior Court judges. “We… will remember him forever for his courage to publicly speak the truth and pursue justice for the ‘comfort women’ victims of WW2 in Asia and all victims of sexual violence.

While the “comfort women” memorial may have been unpopular in some circles, Adachi was not afraid of taking controversial stands, such as his drive for Proposition B, which tried to address the deficit in the city’s pension funds. The move for pension reform was highly controversial among city employees.

“Jeff prophesized that (the deficit) would grow year after year, and he was right,” said community advocate Richard Wada. “It’s still growing, and they are not doing anything about it.” His advocacy for the issue, however, hurt Adachi “tremendously,” said Wada. “Jeff was considered persona non grata among many in the labor community.”

Wada said Adachi’s assertiveness in representing their clients, as well as efforts to address police misconduct, also sometimes led to an adversarial relationship with law enforcement. “It’s not personal, but it’s their job.”

When the San Francisco Japantown community banded together to address post-election hate crimes in November of 2016, Adachi stressed that those gathered at the “United For Compassion” vigil must not only speak, but also act. “You know, we all have to be public defenders now,” Adachi said, holding up his candle in the air. “We gotta make sure that we defend our constitution, we gotta make sure we defend our brothers and sisters who are in harm’s way, and we have to make sure that we defend our own humanity, because that’s what’s at stake in this country.”

‘Paying it Forward’
Former Buddhist Church of Sacramento Betsuin Rinban Bob Oshita, who conducted Adachi’s wedding to the former Mutsuko Sata in 1997, was amazed by Adachi’s “passion to make a difference.”

“We were amazed when early on, he published a handbook on how to pass the bar exam,” recalled Oshita, who is now retired. “He wanted to share his insights and experience to help others pass this great post law school challenge; especially people of color. He was always trying to ‘pay it forward.’

Oshita said that Adachi never once refused to speak at an event in Sacramento when asked.

Keith Muraki, a cousin of Adachi’s mother who works as a counselor at Sacramento City College, said Adachi “always made it a point to stay connected” with Sacramento. “He never said no when asked for assistance. I’ll always remember him as the guy who loved to laugh (goofy and loud)… and, who could make everyone in an entire room, one-by-one, feel as though they’re the most important person in attendance.”

Public Memorial Service
Jeff Adachi is survived by his wife Mutsuko and daughter Lauren, parents Sam and Gladys Adachi in Sacramento, and younger brother Stan Adachi in Los Angeles.

There will be a public memorial service in San Francisco City Hall for Adachi Monday, March 4, 11 a.m.

Bay City News Service contributed to this report.

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