From the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, Jacque Wilson Works to Change the System and Protect Rights
April 05, 2023

A senior attorney in the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, Jacque Wilson grew up in west Modesto understanding the importance of fighting injustice. 

Jacque Wilson

“I always knew I wanted to fight for the underdog. I knew that for a fact,” said Wilson, who graduated from Stanislaus State in 1997 with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.  “My dad, Mack Wilson, was a community activist in Modesto, and I grew up seeing him advocate for the west side, for individuals who had been suspended or expelled from school or just for certain basic rights. I was raised to fight injustice.” 

Wilson will talk about fighting injustice, changing the judicial system, defending the accused and building a fulfilling law career when he and his boss, San Francisco Public Defender Manohar Raju, speak at the fifth annual “Para La Defensa: Perspectives from the Criminal Bar” event at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 12 in Snider Hall. 

Funded by a Stan State Instructionally Related Activities grant and supported by the College of the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences, the event brings prominent criminal defense attorneys to campus as part of an annual speaker’s conference. 

Criminal Justice Associate Professor Blake Wilson believes the event will appeal to anyone interested in mass incarceration, the war against drugs and the death penalty. In addition, he said, everyone at Stan State who is interested in going to law school should attend the event and hear about what lawyers do on a day-to-day basis in criminal law.  

“I hope everyone who hears these speakers comes to appreciate the important work performed by the members of the defense bar within the larger sphere of criminal justice,” said Blake Wilson, who directs the pre-law minor program and coordinates the Pre-Law Resource Center . “More than any other actor in the system, criminal defense attorneys deal directly with marginalized and underrepresented populations, and in doing so, they reinforce their commitment to the rule of law, social justice and equality.” 

On the west side of Modesto, Wilson grew up in a marginalized and underrepresented population and saw a lot of friends wind up incarcerated and/or killed. He moved from Sacramento to Modesto when he was 2 years old. After graduating from Modesto High School, he attended Modesto Junior College before enrolling at Stan State so that he could earn a bachelor’s degree while staying close to home and helping his family.  

“My mom had passed away, and I had two younger brothers at that time, so I wanted to stay around and help my dad as much as I could,” he said. “Also, it allowed me to stay at my parents’ house and essentially live rent-free and focus on my education.” 

“The beauty behind the job I do is that I get to fight not only injustice, but also mass incarceration, human rights violations, civil rights violations, all of it. Everything I dreamt of doing when I was at Stanislaus State. It’s an amazing job.”

– Jacque Wilson, senior attorney in the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office

After Stan State, he earned a law degree from Golden Gate University School of Law. He then passed the state bar exam and cut his teeth for a few years in entry-level positions before he landed a job as an attorney in the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office. He says it turned out to be his dream job, and he recently celebrated his 20th anniversary there.  

“The beauty behind the job I do is that I get to fight not only injustice, but also mass incarceration, human rights violations, civil rights violations, all of it. Everything I dreamt of doing when I was at Stanislaus State,” he said. “It’s an amazing job.” 

That “amazing job” led Wilson to one of the proudest moments of his career: helping to change the felony murder rule in California to significantly narrow the circumstances under which an accomplice can be charged with murder. 

The felony murder rule is a legal doctrine that holds that anyone involved in certain serious felonies that result in death can be held as liable as the actual killer. A common example is that of a girlfriend who waited in a car while her boyfriend went into a store, robbed it and fatally shot someone. Even if she had no knowledge of his plans and wasn’t at the immediate scene of the crime, she could be charged with murder. 

In 2009, Wilson’s younger brother came up against the felony murder rule. He was charged with first-degree murder and faced the death penalty because prosecutors said he helped plan a robbery that was committed by other people and ended with the death of two people in Fresno County. 

For nine years, Wilson worked to defend his incarcerated brother against the charges. During that time, he also worked with a group of advocates and State Senator Nancy Skinner, who sponsored Senate Bill 1437 to narrow the rule. When the new law was passed by the California Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown, Wilson wasted no time getting his brother’s murder charges dropped.  

“Because of the change in the law, I was able to get my brother out of jail. He was the first person released under the new law on Oct. 19, 2018,” Wilson said. 

Wilson is from a big family and has six siblings. One of them – his identical twin brother, who is also an attorney – worked with him to form a nonprofit organization in Modesto called Advocates for Justice to reduce suspensions and expulsions from local schools and eliminate the school-to-prison pipeline. Wilson also teaches as an adjunct professor at UC College of the Law, San Francisco (formerly Hastings College) and University of San Francisco School of Law. 

In the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, Wilson defends clients accused of murder and manages the misdemeanor unit, which gives him the opportunity to work with and guide attorneys who are at the beginning of their careers. He also manages the office’s intern program.  

Wilson has fond memories of his time as a Stan State student. He says he enjoyed spending time in the library, going to rallies, feeling the sense of community on campus and enjoying the occasional parties. 

One of Wilson’s favorite criminal justice professors was Cecil Rhodes (emeritus), who Wilson says encouraged him and helped him find success. 

“He was very influential for me. Growing up in that area, I didn’t have many teachers or professors who were African American, but he was one, and he had done some criminal law defense before,” he said. “He gave me direction and helped me. He pushed me, and I eventually graduated with a degree in criminal justice. I really give him a lot of credit.” 

For Warriors interested in pursuing a law career, Wilson says tenacity and believing in oneself are keys to success. 

“The reality is, if you pick a dream and you are willing to sacrifice everything to achieve that dream, anything’s possible,” he said. “Just stay focused, keep your eye on the prize and don’t be deterred by obstacles, circumstances, the naysayers, the people who get in the way.      

“Anything is possible. If I can make it, I know anyone can make it.”