California Criminal Defense Attorney Community Lost Three of Our Own

On Friday, February 22, 2019, the California criminal defense attorney community lost three of our own. I received word from friends that Jeff Adachi, Public Defender for San Francisco for the last sixteen-plus years, had suffered a heart attack and passed away. Less than an hour later, I heard that Felipe Plasencia, one of the nation’s premier DUI attorneys, and his associate and my friend, Marina Villavicencio, were on board a small plane that had crashed in Tehachapi. Their deaths have now been confirmed.

Marina was a beautiful person, inside and out. Her care for her clients was evident at all times. She had just recently begun to delve into criminal defense and had found one of the best mentors in the world, Felipe Plasencia. I know Marina was headed to great things and it is an enormous loss to our legal community that we will never get to see her realize her full potential, something that one cannot say for Jeff or Felipe. Both of those men had already firmly established their legacies as pillars in the criminal defense community.

There is really no way I could encapsulate what either of these men meant to this community. I urge anyone reading this to spend some time perusing the numerous eulogies already circulating and the many more that are sure to follow, it will give you some small sense of how much each of these men meant to so many different people.

Jeff was an icon. As one of the only elected public defenders in the country, he was able to act boldly in ways that chief PDs elsewhere, subject to the whims of county officials and not voters, could not. He did not shy away from that gift. He built the San Francisco Public Defenders office into one of the best criminal defense firms in the country, a place thousands upon thousands of law students dreamed of working. The office was known for its aggressive litigation practices and the superb skill of its trial attorneys, their continuation of that work will be one of Jeff’s many great legacies.

Jeff did not confine his activism to the day-to-day work of his office though. He was a tireless advocate for criminal justice reform and a feared watchdog for corrupt police and prosecution practices. Like all great public defenders, he was someone who did not fear taking an unpopular position that he knew was right or advocating for those society deemed unworthy.

Somehow, despite that work being more than most mortals could handle, Jeff made himself constantly available to defense attorneys not just in his office, but all over the state. He would personally answer the calls and emails of attorneys seeking his guidance and give both advice and encouragement generously.

What brings some solace to his early passing, Jeff was only 59, is that he spent his life relentlessly engaged in the work he loved and believed in. It sometimes seems that people like Jeff who go to soon were working with an increased sense of urgency, as if they were trying to accomplish all they could in the truncated time they had. Jeff was a superhero and I will miss him.

Felipe, like Jeff, seemed to possess a superhuman amount of energy. After spending time as a Los Angeles Public Defender, a time during which he would often recount he spent almost constantly in trial honing his skills, Felipe built one of the most respected DUI practices in the country. He was recognized among his peers as one of the best, someone who others constantly sought out for advice. Like Jeff, he gave of himself freely and the stories of him spending weekends and evenings offering his help to young defense attorneys he did not even know have flooded my social media feeds in the days since his passing.

Felipe relished the hard fights. Like all of us who do this difficult work, he had an ego, and when you saw him in court he loved regaling you in his rapid-fire manner with the latest against-all-odds victory, the acquittal in the unwinnable case, the trial that had been specially assigned to a senior prosecutor because they were trying to figure out a way to beat him. These stories were not exaggerations. We, his colleagues, marveled at the way in which Felipe fearlessly never saw a case he could not find a defense for. As a result, he was the go to DUI defense attorney for many of Southern California’s politicians, elected officials, and perhaps most-tellingly, fellow defense attorneys, prosecutors and judges.

Like Jeff, Felipe was not satisfied with running an incredibly successful practice. He was intimately involved with the Mexican American Bar Association of Los Angeles, serving as the President of its Political Action Committee and helping guide countless candidates to elected office.

The spirit and energy of all three of these wonderful humans will never be replaced. I hope we honor their memories by trying to emulate their fierce passion for their clients and their colleagues and the betterment of the world.

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