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There's No Such Thing as Bad Press
Scott Lucas | Photo: Robert Fujiocka | December 23, 2013
Inside Public Defender Jeff Adachi's prolific—and hilarious—PR operation.
“Jury acquits in case involving Snickers, alleged air freshener assault.”
Is this: A) a headline from the Onion or B) the title of a press release from the office of a highly esteemed, three-term public defender not otherwise known for his absurdist sense of humor?*
Over the last few years, San Francisco’s Jeff Adachi and his staff have earned a well-deserved reputation for their press releases, which also include such gems as “Case Crumbles in Cookie Tin Drug Trial” and “Husband Acquitted After Burrito Dispute Spurs False Arrest.”
The releases, which get the OK from defendants before they go out, focus on the kinds of crimes, like assault or vandalism, that might seem mundane until the details—sometimes sad, sometimes funny—are filled in.
"It's about balance," says Adachi, who has been in office since 2002. “Often, you only hear about when a person is arrested or convicted. I’ve always believed it is important for the public to hear the other side.” And he’s had plenty of successes to keep in the public eye. In 2012, his staff won 62 percent of the felony cases that went to trial and 42 percent of the misdemeanors. By contrast, his Santa Clara counterpart won 19 percent of felonies and 33 percent of misdemeanors. But raw numbers don’t always catch reporters’ attention, and that’s where Adachi’s press secretary, Tamara Aparton—a former full-time journalist who most recently worked for the Examiner and occasionally still writes for the Bold Italic—comes in. “Every case is a human drama,” she says. “The average case is a lot more interesting than you would think it is.”
Take, for instance, one recent acquittal. “Two guys got into an argument at a work event where everybody was drinking. Some violence ensued, and someone was charged with a misdemeanor. Would you read that?” Aparton asks rhetorically, the obvious answer being no. But with the title “Man Acquitted of Champagne Bottle Attack on Dubstep Fan,” the story takes on an irresistible, Onion-esque absurdity. This is the kind of email subject line that journalists click on.
Or consider the case that was written up under the headline “Smartmouthing the Police Not a Crime, Jury Finds.” A 22-year-old African-American man was sitting in a car, chatting with his mother, who was parked illegally in another car. A police officer demanded the man’s name. He gave it—Chris Christopher. When the officer expressed disbelief at the name, Christopher shot back with an expletive and was arrested, jailed, and tried on five counts. The jury cleared him of all charges, but by then Christopher had already spent months in jail. In yet another case, a man broke back into the house he had shared with a woman to retrieve some of his stuff. While he was there, she came back, accompanied by her new male friend—a former marine. A fight broke out, which the jilted lover quickly lost. Charged with several felonies, he was ultimately convicted of only misdemeanor vandalism. The headline: “Man Sprayed with Bear Repellent Acquitted of Felonies."
"There is a lot of humor in what we do,” says Adachi. “But there is the human condition, too.” And that’s what he and Aparton are ultimately striving to highlight. Aparton says that her line in the sand is “that it’s OK to be funny, but it can’t just be funny.” They look for what Adachi calls the moral in each story. For instance, a recent case—in which a man was acquitted of indecent exposure after attempting carnal relations with a BART seat—was a media blockbuster (it even made that Taiwanese news-animation site), but it also speaks to the city’s frayed mental health and drug addiction safety nets. Chris Christopher is a great story, sure, but it also underlines the points of friction between the police and young African Americans. The jilted lover–versus–marine story illustrates what Adachi calls “prosecutorial overcharging”: “They’ll find three ways to charge you with the same crime,” he explains. “Prosecutors use it as a bargaining chip.”
There’s political reasoning behind the press releases as well: Adachi is the only elected public defender in California, so he has a strong incentive to trumpet his office’s success stories to the public. “When you are appointed,” Adachi says, “you are less likely to engage with the powers that be or the media.” His unusually high public profile has produced policy results far beyond what is usually expected of a public defender: Adachi points to work that his office did on the crime lab scandal, in which thousands of cases were dismissed after a technician stole drugs from the evidence stockpile, and on the Henry Hotel bust, where police illegally raided rooms. “We’ve led to reforms in the crime lab and the ways in which [evidence] is handled,” he says. “Contrast that to Contra Costa, where you had the head of the police narcotics division running a brothel and selling methamphetamines, yet you didn’t hear much from the ACLU. Unless the press becomes involved, nobody will hear about it.”
There’s one more metric that can be used to judge the press releases. “We know for a fact,” says Aparton, “that the district attorney reads every one of them.”
Originally published in the January 2014 issue of San Francisco