Jeff Adachi’s Untimely Death Hit Me Like a Hammer's Blow

Editor's Note:

Aram James, activist and retired public defender, reflects on his friend Jeff Adachi, the legendary San Francisco defender who passed on February 22, 2019.

A friend asked if I knew Jeff Adachi – the elected public defender of San Francisco who died unexpectedly on Friday February 22.

Yes, I knew Jeff. I worked on his first campaign and got to know Jeff well. Poster maker Doug Minkler and I contributed some of our criminal injustice inspired posters to help raise funds for his campaign.

Along with a few other public defenders, circa 1999 or so, I was a co-founder of Citizens to Elect Our Public Defender in Santa Clara County.

Once I heard that Jeff was running against appointed public defender Kimiko Burton, I was excited to meet Jeff and to see how an elected public defender would function and interact with the community versus an appointed public defender (the model in most of the other 58 California countries). Jeff turned out to be the role model for what a public defender, elected by the people, can do for his clients, and community at large, as opposed to a public defender whose job is subject to the political whims of the body that appoints the public defender. In fact, Jeff recently wrote a letter, defending the concept of an elected public defender, in response to an LA Times piece opposing the concept.  

We have been good friends ever since his first term as public defender. We often exchanged e-mails on criminal justice issues. His death stunned and saddened me, and my son Lewis. Lewis and I had attended the opening of Jeff’s last movie “Defender” and saw Jeff. The movie was an example of the extraordinary work Jeff provided his clients over a 30-year-plus career.

I regularly attended Jeff’s annual innovative Justice Summit, open to the public, which always featured cutting edge panels with amazing speakers, both lawyers and community activists, on topics critical to the reform or abolition of the criminal justice system as it exists. 

And just a few years back we were on a panel together speaking out against Tasers in San Francisco.  In September 2018, we exchanged notes on issues surrounding body-worn cameras, some of which, he would later use in a talk to lawyers in Las Vegas. I co-produced a poster for Jeff in 2009 as part of a larger campaign when then SF Mayor Gavin Newsom was attempting to cut Jeff’s budget. Jeff succeeded in resisting Newsom’s attempt.  Despite Jeff’s almost around the clock schedule he always found the time to give me feedback on my own criminal justice related projects.

Jeff was one extraordinary person, a warrior for all of his clients, a visionary for systemic changes to the criminal justice system, an artist for change who exposed racism and hard social justice reality in his films and in his writings. Jeff was a warm and caring friend to so many.  His legacy and inspiration will live on in the legal work and activism he has taught and role modeled for so many other justice warriors. Rest In Peace my dear friend Jeff!

Written by
Aram James

Aram James is a retired Santa Clara County deputy public defender—and a cofounder of the Albert Cobarrubias Justice Project (ACJP) –a grassroots legal advocacy organization ---based in San Jose, CA.
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