He is remembered for his tenacity, fearlessness, creativity and his passion for advocating for the poor.
Jeffrey A. Jacobs, who served in the Monroe County Public Defender’s Office for more than 20 years, died nearly four years ago following an eight-month battle with brain cancer. He was 50.
“I worked with Jeff for a number of years and I always considered him a source of inspiration,” said Tim Donaher, the county’s current public defender. “He was the penultimate criminal defense attorney in my mind. He was always fighting for his clients.”
Jacobs will be memorialized through the creation of a new award by the Monroe County Public Defender’s Office, Donaher announced recently.
The award is the result of some discussions among senior staff in the office, and will recognize a criminal defense attorney, not necessarily a public defender, who has performed outstanding work and exemplifies Jacobs’s qualities, which Donaher said include fierce advocacy and dedication to clients, a commitment to justice and service as a role model for younger attorneys.https://5d3cc1d0ce28df78df7f18134eef5082.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
“We want to recognize a trial attorney,” said Donaher. “It’s just for criminal defense attorneys. It could be federal, private, public defenders — anyone in the greater Rochester area.”
A passion for the job
Jacobs was a 1981 graduate of Boston College Law School and worked in the Monroe County Public Defender’s Office from 1982 to 1986, when he returned to Boston so his wife, Andrea, could pursue her post-graduate studies at Harvard.
The couple arrived back in Rochester in 1988, and Jacobs returned to the public defender’s office, where he rose to special assistant public defender, a senior staff position. He worked there until his death in November 2006.
Former Public Defender Edward Nowak was happy to welcome Jacobs back, he said.
“What stood out about Jeff, to me, was his passion for the job,” Nowak said. “He was truly passionate and believed in what he was doing. He believed that the most important aspect of the criminal justice system was competent defense counsel because without that, a poor person could not get a fair trial.”
Monroe County Court Judge Richard A. Keenan, who serves on the new Jacobs awards committee, was an assistant district attorney when he first met Jacobs. The two were courtroom adversaries on a number of cases in the 1980s and 1990s.
“He certainly was a vigorous opponent from the defense side,” Keenan said. “He handled a number of high-profile cases.”
Keenan also remembered Jacobs as an involved father, coaching his sons in soccer and basketball, and as a huge New York Knicks fan. Even though he wasn’t much of a basketball fan, Keenan often brought up the Knicks in conversations during the trials they covered.
“I think it’s a wonderful idea to recognize advocacy on the public attorney level,” Keenan said. “I think it is important to the legal community to recognize attorneys who have devoted their career to public advocacy at a high level, serving as assigned counsel or public defenders.”
Dianne C. Russell, another awards committee member, worked with Jacobs for 17 years in the public defender’s office. Now in private practice, she was a law clerk when she applied for the job.
“He was very encouraging,” she said of Jacobs. “What he said to me was ‘Now, you can be an advocate.’ That was very important to him. He valued that ability to advocate for individuals.”
“The younger attorneys really have looked up to him quite a bit,” Russell said. “I think he would be surprised to find out how other people saw him as an incredible mentor and teacher. He probably wouldn’t have described himself that way, but he was always available.”
Karen Bailey Turner, an attorney at Brown & Hutchinson, said Jacobs was an institution at the public defender’s office where she worked for 10 years.
“He was a great mentor and an unapologetic representative of those accused of crimes, particularly the indigent,” she said. “The man was fearless and he taught us to be fearless, too. The term ‘afraid’ and Jeff were not synonymous. I think as the cases get more difficult, the allegations get more heinous, I think it’s difficult for an attorney to go to court.”
She said she misses the expert advice she would receive from Jacobs and the group talks the attorneys would have about cases.
Even though Jacobs and his wife were not from Rochester, they fell in love with the community, Andrea said. They raised two children here: Justin, a Hofstra University graduate who is an attorney working with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit; and Jarrett, a Peace Corps volunteer working as a natural resources manager in a remote African village.
“My husband was a very analytical person,” Andrea said. “His undergraduate degree was in biology so he’s been trained as a scientist, which I think was a really interesting combination with a law degree.”
She believes his science background was beneficial when Jacobs was assigned Monroe County’s first case involving DNA evidence. The trial transcripts were requested by O.J. Simpson’s defense team in generating their own cross examination of witnesses in the late 1990s. (The case involved the defense of Willis Knight, 47, now serving 37-and-a-half years to life for second-degree murder and first-degree rape of 18-year-old Jennifer Koon in 1993, the daughter of state Assemblyman David Koon of Perinton. Housed in the Great Meadow Correctional Facility in Washington County, Willis is not eligible for parole consideration until 2031.)
A family man
Andrea said her husband loved fishing, hiking, camping, cooking, wine, golf and his family, teaching his sons many things.
“It was really fun around the dinner table,” she said. “He challenged his sons and me to think about things very carefully. He gave a lot of insight into how to think about problems and understand there’s always a different perspective, which I think is consistent with his being a defense attorney.”
Andrea said her husband would be pleased about the award.
“It’s fantastic,” she said. “It’s an honor and it really speaks volumes to how well respected Jeff was in the legal community.”
Andrew MacGowan, a school administrator in the Rochester City School District, knew Jacobs as a friend.
MacGowan said Jacobs was like everybody’s big brother. Regardless of how old they were, Jacobs was the older, wiser, benevolent brother.
“You had to get to know him to know this,” he said. “He was humble and didn’t have the need to advertise his array of astonishing virtues.”
Jacobs was a big Grateful Dead fan, MacGowan also recalled. He sometimes arranged his vacations around the band’s tour schedule, from March 1973 until June 1995, six weeks before singer Jerry Garcia’s death.
After graduating from law school, Jeff worked for a year as an associate of A. Vincent Buzard before starting his career at the Monroe County Public Defender’s Office in December of 1982.
As a public defender, Jeff tried more than 100 felony cases in his career. Donaher said there are few attorneys in the region who have tried more felony cases than Jacobs and obtained the results he achieved for his clients.
The first Jeffery A. Jacobs Memorial Award will be presented Dec. 3 at the Defense Community Dinner, aptly following a CLE, “Defending Against DNA & Scientific Evidence,” presented by the New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Monroe County Public Defender’s Office at SUNY Brockport.
For more information on the seminar, see www.nysacdl.com Details on the dinner will be announced later.