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Jeff Adachi (r) with his client Lam Choi

by Pamela Yates

The 2-hour film “Presumed Guilty” is here:

We were in the holding cell behind the courtroom – Jeff, Lam Choi and I. It was tense, you could see it in Jeff’s face, the way he clenched his jaw, the way he held his head. Jeff had been defending Lam for 4 years against the charge of first-degree murder. The jury had been chosen, Jeff had written and practiced his opening statement, the trial was about to start, and now there was an offer of a deal from the DA. What to do?

I was told by the Sheriff to never to film back in the courtroom’s holding cells, but I’d also been following this case for years and I just had to film this moment. What played out was a beautiful dance between Jeff Adachi and his client Lam Choi. The two men had deep affection for each other. Jeff wanting the best for Lam in spite of having brilliantly prepared a self-defense defense, but knowing that the plea deal would enable Lam to get out of prison while he still had a meaningful life to live.

They took the deal, the Sheriff found out I broke the rules and he banned me from the jails in San Francisco jails for life. I didn’t regret my decision, but I was making a feature documentary about the San Francisco Public Defenders office and my hard won 24/7 access to the jails was central to this story.

In fact, Jeff Adachi had been key to our being able to make a film about the San Francisco Public Defender’s office called “Presumed Guilty”. He patiently helped me understand criminal law and mass incarceration, he gave our crew an office inside the public defender’s office for a year, he let me film him during his investigations and jail visits and even as he built his opening arguments. He had a great sense of drama and of storytelling. He was a winning presence with the jury, sincere, knowledgeable, charming, a real people’s lawyer.

I had chosen the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office because it was a great one. I felt that the story of the unprepared, overworked, underpaid, fall-asleep-during-the-trial public defender story had been told.  So I crisscrossed the country, went to or talked to 30 public defenders offices, and chose San Francisco because it had some of the best and brightest young lawyers defending people who couldn’t afford a lawyer. Jeff was a leader in that office who was so dedicated to defending rights because he understood the criminalization of poverty in our country – 90-95% of people who get arrested in the U.S. can’t afford a lawyer. And he was going to lead the best team of public defenders to give people the best possible defense.

In his role as Chief Attorney at the office he called the Sheriff and got my jail pass reinstated. He worked with me to find good cases within the office and convince the other public defenders. He was focused on structural reform in criminal justice, not just the day to day defense of his clients. He crusaded against the awful conditions in juvenile detention, fought for immigrant rights, his office marched annually in the Gay Pride Parade, the largest in the country, wearing tee shirts that read, “San Francisco Public Defenders…getting people off since 1921.”

That intense year we spent together in the Hall of Justice and the San Francisco Public Defenders Offices set us both on new paths. I fell in love with the law and went on to make many more films about human rights and the quest for justice, films like “State of Fear”, “The Reckoning: The Battle for the International Criminal Court” and “Granito: How to Nail a Dictator”.  In a power grab, Jeff got fired as Chief Attorney by Kimiko Burton, an appointee of Mayor Willie Brown,  but then fought his way back into the Public Defenders Office by defeating her with a full-on grass roots campaign, becoming the elected Public Defender where he stayed for 17 years winning election after election until the day he died.  As a result of our work making “Presumed Guilty”, Jeff fell in love with filmmaking and started to produce his own documentaries, “The Slanted Screen” “You Don’t Know Jack: The Jack Soo Story” and “Defender”.

Because filmmakers and lawyers are a lot alike.  We both want to tell a compelling, dramatic story based on the good facts as best as we are able to know them at the time of telling. And whoever has the most believable story for the jury in the case of lawyers, or for the audience in the case of filmmakers, wins the day.

Because public defenders lose a lot of their cases, Jeff had a saying, “We live to fight another day.” From his parents and grandparents who were accused unjustly and spent 4 years in internment camps during World War II, Jeff’s keen sense of injustice kept the Public Defenders Office on track, and the over 100 attorneys on their mission: to defend those who are poor and have few rights.  His leadership and inspiring commitment to justice will be sorely missed.

Paco de Onís

Paco is the Executive Director and Executive Producer of Skylight, a human rights media organization dedicated to advancing social justice through storytelling by creating documentary films and media tools that can applied in long-term strategies for positive social change.

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