SF public defender attacks role of criminal justice system in school board member’s death 

Public Defender Jeff Adachi has questioned the role of the criminal justice system in the death of Daly City school board member Joseph Waters.

Adachi claims that criminal justice-related issues were a factor in the death of the Jefferson Elementary School District board member, who was found dead of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound in his Daly City home in mid-December, but San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe disagrees.

While Adachi had no official involvement in the case, he had been one of Waters’ personal training clients and considered him a friend. Adachi said he was speaking publicly about the matter because he felt Waters’ death resulted from “a combination of decisions that snowballed into what was a preventable tragedy.”

In addition to serving on the school board, Waters was a psychology teacher at the College of San Mateo, a personal trainer and a husband and father. But some legal problems that stemmed from an arrest on the Peninsula in 2012, when police found a loaded firearm in his car, is what Adachi argues may have contributed to personal troubles in his life.

While the case was originally going to be prosecuted as a misdemeanor, Adachi said that when the San Mateo County prosecutors learned Waters had also been charged with a misdemeanor firearm violation in Humboldt County, they decided to charge Waters with a felony.

Convicted in 2014, Waters faced not only having to step down from his position on the school board, but also losing his income, because his workplace had a policy against employing people with felony convictions, according to Adachi.

Just hours before his death, Waters posted a Facebook status update saying the criminal justice system breaks people down, causing a sense of “learned helplessness.”

“I’m done,” Waters wrote, “I can’t do this anymore.”

Adachi shared Waters’ belief that his race might have been a factor in his arrest and prosecution, a claim Wagstaffe strongly denies. While Waters was originally stopped for having an expired car registration, police allegedly justified the car search by claiming Waters matched a description of a black crime suspect.

Adachi said he is skeptical of this assertion, and noted that Waters’ lawyer tried unsuccessfully to have the evidence against his client suppressed, claiming it resulted from an illegal search.

Despite the two firearm violations, Adachi said Waters was not a criminal, and only possessed a gun because he was an avid sport shooter. He said the misdemeanor case in Humboldt County resulted from Waters forgetting to renew his firearms permit.

“He was, quite literally, an absent-minded professor,” the public defender noted.

Police chiefs on the Peninsula have pointed to Wagstaffe’s relentless prosecution of gun violations as one reason gun crimes are rare in the county.

Wagstaffe said that although he wasn’t personally involved in the case against Waters, he stands by his prosecutors, who behaved consistently with his policy of zero tolerance toward firearms violations. The need for that policy becomes apparent every time he meets with the family members of gun violence victims, the district attorney said.

But Adachi wonders whether prosecutors would have been so adamant about applying their tough-on-guns policy if Waters had been white.

Black motorists are three times as likely as white drivers to be searched during a traffic stop and twice as likely to be arrested, Adachi said, citing 2005 U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics figures. Adachi further noted that a 1991 study of nearly 700,000 criminal cases published by the San Jose Mercury News revealed prosecutors are much less likely to reduce or drop charges against black defendants.

Addressing concerns about racial bias, Wagstaffe said, “In my 38 years in this office, I have always impressed upon my people that a person’s race can not be a factor in the decision to prosecute. We have to be colorblind here.”

Waters’ lawyer, Kevin Allen, said that because he’s attempting to obtain some posthumous relief for his client, he could not comment on the case. Daly City Police Department officials did not respond to interview requests.

At the district Board of Trustees meeting Wednesday, Manufou Liaiga-Anoa'i was appointed to complete Waters' unexpired term. Liaiga-Anoa'i’s term will expire in November.

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