The San Francisco public defender’s office has made the news a lot lately, but the actual San Francisco public defender? He’s gone mostly unnoticed.
Nearly a year ago, the death of larger-than-life Public Defender Jeff Adachi at just 59 shocked San Francisco — and the ensuing brouhaha over the seedy circumstances behind his death, and the ham-handed effort to root out who in the police department leaked those details, filled headlines.
In November, Chesa Boudin, a deputy public defender, again jolted San Francisco — and made headlines nationally — for narrowly winning the race for district attorney. One of his first actions as district attorney was firing several prosecutors and replacing some of them with, yes, public defenders.
So the public defender’s office is making news all over the place. But Mano Raju, who’s been running it for the past nine months, hasn’t been heard from much. Well, except for a surprisingly clumsy response to the police raid on the home of a journalist in an effort to see who in the police department leaked details of Adachi’s death scene.
I invited Raju on the San Francisco City Insider podcast to find out who he is, how he’s running the office similarly or differently from his charismatic, outspoken predecessor, and how he’ll work with the former colleague who’s now the city’s top prosecutor.
Raju, 51, is widely described as thoughtful and reserved. He grew up on the East Coast — born in Delaware and raised in Pittsburgh and Boston — with parents who moved from a small village in southern India. He graduated from Columbia University before moving to the Bay Area in the early 1990s to attend UC Berkeley, first earning his master’s degree in South Asian studies and then receiving his law degree.
He worked in the Contra Costa County public defender’s office for six years before Adachi hired him in 2008. Raju was the manager of the felony unit when Adachi died on Feb. 22.
Mayor London Breed interviewed Raju and three other candidates to replace Adachi before phoning Raju at his son’s soccer game March 10 to tell him, “Press conference tomorrow — we’re going to do this,” he recalled.
On March 11, Breed announced Raju was her choice to replace Adachi, but he wasn’t sworn in until April 25 to give him time to move from Oakland to San Francisco, as required by city charter. He lives in the Outer Mission with his 9-year-old son, Asim, and wife, Asha Mehta, a project director at CompassPoint, a social justice nonprofit in Oakland. He was elected to his first four-year term on Nov. 5.
To listen to our full conversation, visit sfchronicle.com/insider. Here are some highlights:
On Adachi: Raju was a good friend of the late public defender, calling him “a real mentor to me and a true civil rights hero.”
“A lot of what I’m doing right now, I hear him in the background, and I really think about, ‘What would Jeff think of this?’” he said. “But I’m trying to chart my own path. I’m constantly evaluating what it is we’re going to adopt, what it is we’re going to adapt and what it is we’re going to abandon.”
One change he has made, he said, is using some salary savings from those who have left the office to hire a couple of part-time social workers to work with defendants charged with crimes. Adachi also employed social workers, but Raju has beefed up the team.
On remaking jury duty: Raju has been a longtime advocate of reforming the jury system to make it more diverse. Currently, it’s not uncommon to see some San Francisco jury pools with no African Americans, for example.
California law requires that employers give time off for jury duty, but doesn’t require them to pay employees while they’re serving on juries. Prospective jurors can ask judges to dismiss them in cases of financial hardship, meaning jury pools tend to be composed of people who can afford to be off work or who have employers who’ll pay them while they’re off.
Currently, jurors in the city earn nothing on their first day of service and $15 daily after that. They can also qualify for a $2.50 mileage allowance.
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Like the news articles The Chronicle publishes, our columns aim to be thoroughly reported, using interviews, research and data to back up the writer’s observations. But unlike regular articles, columns allow writers to offer their own perspective to the reporting, and tell readers what they think about an issue. Heather Knight’s On San Francisco column is produced by talking to numerous sources, attending events across the city and interviewing a spectrum of people, including politicians, bureaucrats and regular residents. She writes from the press room at City Hall and gets her ideas from sources, reader tips and observations gleaned from her own life as a San Francisco resident.
“In a city with the wealth that San Francisco has, it’s really a shame,” Raju said. “It should be avoidable to have jurors who say, ‘I don’t have the financial means to be on a jury.’ So we’re looking into methods where we can try to pay them.”
He said he’d like to see jurors earn the city’s minimum wage, which stands at $15.59 an hour.
“I want to treat it like an actual job,” he said.
On Boudin: Raju worked with Boudin for many years and called him “a very fine attorney and a visionary.” He said voters were swayed by Boudin’s insistence on a more progressive approach to prosecuting crimes.
“They’re tired of the same revolving door, and they’re looking for more substantive answers to what needs to be done in our criminal legal system,” Raju said.
Of course, many voters adamantly opposed to Boudin’s election believe he will continue that revolving door, releasing back to the streets many of those who are arrested to continue the behavior that got them arrested in the first place. Raju said that’s the wrong way of looking at it.
“We have to stop looking at 850 Bryant or the criminal courthouse as the beginning of the end of what the solution is,” he said. “It’s really important we get to the root causes. We have to be looking at inequities in education. We have to be looking at inequities in housing. We have to look at mental health issues.”
As for Boudin plucking some lawyers from his office, Raju said he was expecting it and has “dozens and dozens” of resumes from attorneys who want to work for him.
On that police raid: On May 10, San Francisco police officers took a sledgehammer to the door of Bryan Carmody, a freelance journalist who refused to say who in the police department leaked to him an internal report on Adachi’s death. The officers had a search warrant authorized by Superior Court judges, handcuffed Carmody for six hours and removed electronics and notebooks from his home.
Incredibly, city officials mostly backed the raid despite its clear infringement on press freedom. That included Raju, who released a statement seeming to approve of the police action, saying, “I am pleased that Chief (Bill) Scott and others are keeping their word and working to get to the bottom of it.”
“I regret not making a more full statement at the time,” Raju said, noting that back then he was still “getting used to more media coverage.”
He said he meant he was pleased the police department was trying to determine who within it had leaked sordid details about his former boss, but didn’t support the raid because it violated the Fourth Amendment, which protects people against unreasonable searches and seizures.
“Oftentimes what happens is when there is a police investigation, we find out it’s just a black hole — nothing happens, and we don’t hear anything about it,” he said. “I was just making the comment that there seemed to be some movement.”
He agreed with my assessment, however, that the fallout from the ill-conceived raid seems to have ended the police investigation in its tracks.
“It seems like it has,” he said. “We’re still waiting for answers.”
San Francisco Chronicle columnist Heather Knight appears Sundays and Tuesdays. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @hknightsf Instagram: @heatherknightsf