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Public Defender No. 1: Jeff Adachi's Revolution 

Wednesday, Jun 10 2015
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Judge Philip J. Moscone is losing his temper. "I'm not a jury, and I'm not an artichoke," he snaps at the squabbling prosecutor and defense attorney in his courtroom.

It's the second day of questioning in the preliminary hearing of Lisa Heng, a 31-year-old Cambodian-American woman who is being charged with first degree murder for the death of Matt Sheahan. The hearing, to determine whether the state has probable cause to take the case to trial, was supposed to last just one day. But Heng's case landed on the desk of Jeff Adachi, the elected public defender for San Francisco, and Adachi — dressed in a well-tailored suit and yellow Armani tie, his signature suspenders peeking out from his suit coat — is nothing if not thorough in his cross-examination. He stands at a lectern as he questions his witnesses, slightly hunched over a three-ring binder, marking off his questions as he asks them with a light flourish of his pen. Where the prosecutor, Tiffaney Gipson, introduces 8½-by-11-inch photographs as exhibits, Adachi produces giant poster-board sized enlargements of his pictures. During recesses, Adachi sits with the defendant's family members and answers their questions, but he also makes a point of introducing himself and offering his condolences to the victim's mother.

On the opening day of the hearing, Adachi had set the tone by dismantling the testimony of the prosecution's first witness, a young police officer. Celina Chow, who was still in training when she responded to a call at a Tenderloin SRO in the early morning hours of July 18, 2014, answered Adachi's question about whether Heng was "sobbing hysterically" that morning with an emphatic "no." Adachi then read aloud from Chow's police report, in which she had written that Heng was "sobbing hysterically."

"Which is more accurate? Your testimony now that she wasn't sobbing hysterically, or your police report?" Adachi demanded. "Do you understand the difference it makes when you use an adjective?"

It was the kind of gotcha moment designed for courtroom dramas, and Adachi pulled it off with style. But there's a certain hollowness to the exercise of showing up the rookie cop. The orange sweatsuit-clad defendant sitting next to Adachi won't be acquitted over Chow's iffy memory of a stray adjective.

Another contentious moment came when Adachi goaded the medical examiner over her lack of experience with stab wounds that have not resulted in death, forcing the doctor to defend her life's work: "I do autopsies for a living. They don't come to me unless they're deceased." She looked a little silly, but then, Judge Moscone is no artichoke.

The first day of cross-examination had been just a preview of the "fireworks" Adachi promised me were in store for Day Two, when Sgt. Alan Levy, the officer who interrogated Heng following the stabbing, is called to the stand. Levy is a handsome young homicide detective who wears a perpetual smirk. When Adachi struggles to play a video on the giant AV system, Levy leaves the witness stand to try to fix the television himself. He's that kind of guy.

Adachi questions Levy twice, first in a voir dire challenging whether Heng's statement to the police is permissible, and then again in cross-examination. The defender presses the sergeant on his interrogation tactics, forcing the police officer to acknowledge that he asked Heng 65 questions before advising her of her Miranda rights. Adachi tries to get Levy to discuss what kinds of interrogation techniques he might have used or been trained on (a line of questioning the judge mostly forecloses), focusing on whether Levy used the "Reid Technique," a controversial interrogation method that has been linked to false confessions.

Later, Adachi homes in on Levy's decision not to treat Heng as a victim of domestic violence, even though she claimed to have been punched twice by Sheahan that night. Adachi's questions have a clear message — that Heng was the victim and not the abuser in the relationship, Sheahan's death notwithstanding — and they prompt the judge to again chastise the defender's dramatics. "I assume you're not looking for a second profession working for the media," Moscone grumbles.

Adachi is unfazed. This is how he operates, not just as Heng's public defender but as San Francisco's Public Defender. He defends his clients vigorously, but he does not simply try individual cases: Jeff Adachi is waging a much larger campaign against what he refers to as the "injustice system."

"The structural critique that I have of the system is that it's not fair," Adachi says later in his office. "You're not going to be treated fairly, particularly if you're poor and a person of color."

As the only elected public defender in California, Adachi uses his office to seek to redress injustice systemically. Last December, Adachi resigned from his longtime position on the board of directors of the California Public Defenders Association and founded a new group, Public Defenders for Social Change. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement and the ongoing national conversation about racism in law enforcement and the courts, Adachi decided it was time for public defenders to step forward, testify to the systemic racism and bias they witness on a daily basis, and lead a movement for change.

It's an auspicious moment for Adachi to press his charges in San Francisco. The problem of racial disparities in policing and prosecutions is on the minds of local and national media and political leaders and is shaping up to be a key issue in the 2016 presidential campaign. Meanwhile, San Francisco's law enforcement agencies are reeling from a series of scandals, including problems at the San Francisco Police Department DNA testing lab, allegations of inmates in the county jail being forced by sheriff's deputies to fight, and the release of racist, sexist, and homophobic text messages exchanged between active SFPD officers.

Both the text message and jail fight scandals were catalyzed by press conferences called by Adachi, one directly and one indirectly. His willingness to take issues public has led some of his critics, like former San Francisco Police Officers Association President Gary Delagnes, to call him a "media whore." But Adachi doesn't seem to mind.


About The Author

Julia Carrie Wong

Julia Carrie Wong's work has appeared in numerous local and national titles including 48hills, Salon, In These Times, The Nation, and The New Yorker.

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