By Lovepreet Dhinsa & Layla Mustafa
SAN FRANCISCO – The San Francisco Public Defender’s Office was founded in 1921 with one attorney—former police Officer Frank Egan, but his popular reputation as a celebrated public official took a turn after he became the principal suspect surrounding a 1932 murder case.
The lack of court transcripts, outdated court procedures, extremely involved press, and a jumble of public servants tangled in the case, appear to make the Egan story difficult for the average reader to grasp.
However, through exceptional narration, the late Jeff Adachi was able to weave a fascinating account of the case, and in doing so, he created a nuanced story that gave life and greater perspective to a piece of San Francisco’s history.
Monday, the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office hosted a book release for San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi’s book, The Case of San Francisco Public Defender Frank Egan: Murder and Scandal in the 1930s.
The webinar featured a batch of panelists with connections to Adachi, as well as characters in his post-posthumously released story.
Mano Raju, the current San Francisco Public Defender, set the tone of the webinar as a day of remembrance of a figure that is recognized locally and nationally, in addition to celebrating what Adachi brought to the field of public defense and restorative justice.
In celebration of the San Francisco Public Defender Office’s 100-year anniversary, the panelists believed that it was very fitting to honor Adachi during Black History Month, in light of his devotion to helping the marginalized in society.
Given the rich history of the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, this day was also in remembrance of the first African American public defender, Frederick D. Smith, and the first female African American public defender, Estella Dooley.
Jacque Wilson, the host of the webinar, described Adachi as a fellow Black man, in that “he would fight for the rights of poor people, people with mental illnesses, but he also fought for Black people. In my eyes and of many others, Jeff was a Black man.”
In the prologue of the book, Adachi mentions his approach to trial work, which continues to be embodied in the office: “Criminal trials are modern-day gladiator fights. Like the armed combats from the Roman Empire, trial lawyers face off and fight for their respective clients’ cases and causes. Instead of swords, they use their words and all of the skill they can muster to present the winning case, and convince the jury of the righteousness of their client’s position.”
Mutsuko Adachi, the widow of the late Jeff Adachi, explained the value of the book to her and showed her gratitude to the office for honoring him in the celebration of the office—and for turning what would have otherwise been an unfortunate day into a few moments of happiness.
One of the programs that Adachi founded was “B’Magic,” in which he often stated that he was in the business of putting a public defender out of work. Adachi created these programs for the Black community in an effort to strengthen community ties, and uplift the voices from Black and Brown communities.
Phoenix Streets described Adachi’s efforts toward the office in that he understood that “everything can be taken away from you at any time from the government and Jeff used the law to help people, particularly Black people.”
In his dedication, he recruited an all-Black incoming intern class for the office, which was something that was not common then, and certainly not now.
Most importantly though, Streets said Adachi’s best quality was how he treated all people with respect and dignity. At the core of his principles was fighting for change, in which people should not be subjected to remain in jail because of their income status.
Tamara Aparton, who was the director of communications for Adachi, described Adachi as a natural storyteller. Not only did he tell stories in court, but he also told them through books and other forms of media, said Aparton.
According to Aparton, Adachi “really understood that stories are the way that human beings understand things and each other, and he was very in tune with that.”
Stories are often told by law enforcement, in which the full story is never encapsulated. She said Adachi wanted to show the work that public defenders did and ensure that both sides of the story were represented, which is exactly what he accomplished through his latest book.
She added that Adachi believed in celebrating every victory of the office and continued to lead the only public defender’s office that put out press releases every time they won a case—Adachi believed that every story deserved justice and the ability to be told.
Following in the footsteps of Adachi, the office continues to put out press releases and give the broader public a bigger view of what happens in courtrooms, in addition to the disparities of what the average person might read in the newspaper versus what the full story might be.
Joe Engler, a San Francisco sheriff, presented an example of how Adachi continued to make connections and impacts in the community, noting that Adachi never failed to bring his kindness and community spirit, even if it meant sitting down with a law student every week helping him pass the bar exam.
In the name of community spirit, Engler believes that the most important thing people can do as a community is care about people, and he described how, in his line of work, the most rewarding thing he does is take the handcuffs off someone and help them reintegrate into society.
As a descendant of the story’s detective George Engler, Joe Engler discussed the value of having a strong family history in San Francisco. Brendan Hallinan, grandson of Vincent Hallinan (Frank Egan’s attorney), also confirmed the significance and empowerment that may ensue with having one’s lineage rooted in the city.
For Hallinan, he said he was impressed with how Adachi was able to make his grandfather’s story much more accessible to the general public, and felt that the book was an excellent perspective that contributed to the richness of his family and his grandfather’s story.
One of the ways in which Jeff was able to make the story so captivating was by formulating the story by piecing together the myriad of newspaper articles and witness reports at the time, he said.
For Megan Cassidy, a crime reporter with the San Francisco Chronicle, it was a surprise to discover the extensive amount of daily coverage the case was given. Cassidy compared the coverage to the present day, saying, “Even today, with some of the biggest cases we wouldn’t have gavel to gavel coverage.”
Cassidy mentioned that another striking aspect of the 1930s media coverage was the much more “romanticized” view of journalistic writing. This included more exclamation points, was more editorialized, and would sometimes veer on the side of biased by today’s standards.
While this antiquated world of media coverage was exorbitant and perhaps too opinionated, it provided Adachi with the material he needed to construct a gripping story, she said.
According to those present Monday, Adachi’s legacy lives on as an accomplished public defender, advocate, storyteller, and friend. His work continues to inspire the public to view their world with a more nuanced perspective.
For more information about the book release or any other information about the 100th Anniversary of the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, or the recently launched AdachiProject.com & WeAreDefender.com, contact Valerie Ibarra (Public Information Officer) at PUBDEF-MediaRelations@sfgov.org.
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