Learn more about Jarrett Adams, including his life after being exonerated, in the latest episode of Great Big Story, a new podcast by CNN about the surprising stories all around us.
Jarrett Adams is a criminal defense lawyer who has dedicated his career to bringing justice to those who are underserved. But his first and most profound experience with the law came with trying to prove his own innocence after being wrongfully imprisoned for nearly a decade.
One summer party would change the course of his life
Born and raised on the south side of Chicago, Adams graduated high school in 1998 at the age of 17. One night that summer, Adams snuck out with two friends to go to a party at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. That night would change the course of his life.
Three weeks after the party, Adams found a business card from a police officer lodged in his front door. A girl at the party had accused Adams and his two friends of rape. Despite a witness statement that contradicted the accuser’s story, Adams and his friends were arrested and charged with sexual assault.
“We were totally innocent. That was an absolute and total lie,” says Adams. “I realized very quickly early on it had nothing to do with the truth, it was about race. It was about who was accusing me and how the accused looked. We were all Black and we were accused by a White girl of rape, so no matter what we said we were never going to be believed. Never.”
At 17 years old, he was tried as an adult
In Wisconsin, 17-year-olds are prosecuted as adults. While one of Adams’ friends was able to afford to hire an attorney, Adams and the third co-defendant were both assigned public defenders.
“We all initially went to trial together and the trial ended with a mistrial,” Adams remembers. “It ended with a mistrial because the testimony of our accuser dramatically changed.” The court called for a re-trial.
A new defense strategy fails Adams
While Adams’ friend’s private attorney filed for a dismissal based on the grounds of double jeopardy, arguing that the court could not try him for the same crime twice, the two public defenders did not. During Adams’ retrial, the public defender called for a no defense theory, which would not allow for any witness statements. This move backfired.
“They completely committed to a strategy that was illogical, and it resulted in me being found guilty and me being sentenced to serve 28 years in a maximum-security prison.” Adams says. Still just a teenager, he was facing a life in prison till the age of nearly 50.
“I was a kid. I really was, but they’ll call you ‘boy’ all the way up until they charge you like a man and sentence you as if you are one,” he said.
Adams’ co-defendant with the private attorney never spent a day in prison.
“The prosecutor dismissed all the charges against my co-defendant. You would naturally expect that would happen immediately for us,” Adams remembers. “We had to appeal for seven more years for him to dismiss the charges that he could have done when he did my co-defendant’s case.”
The court eventually dismissed his friend’s charges after police turned over an important witness statement. However, because Adams’ no defense strategy did not allow for witness statements, it was not considered in his case.
He was wrongfully charged with 28 years in prison
“That decision not to join in that motion cost me almost a decade in my life,” says Adams. “We’re talking about the same case, being accused by the same person, and the difference was having an adequate defense. When you want to talk about the flaws and the problems wrong with the criminal justice system, that’s a direct example right there.”
Adams and his co-defendant with the public defender were both sentenced to 20 years in prison. However, Adams’ sentence did not end there.
“They give you an opportunity to address the court,” Adams remembers. “When I got up, I told the court, ‘Look, I want to apologize to my parents, I’m even going to apologize to the parents of my accuser. But I’m not going to apologize for a rape that never happened.’ The judge found that I wasn’t being remorseful and she gave me an additional eight years in prison.”
Suddenly, his life had flipped. “I was absolutely terrified,” he remembers. “I was one of the youngest faces in that maximum-security prison, about 140 pounds … And I’m around a bunch of grown men. It was an out-of-body experience from the time they said ‘guilty.’”
One conversation would be a wake-up call
One day, after being in prison for a year and a half, Adams had a conversation that changed his entire approach.
“I had a cellmate who was an older white dude who was in prison for two life sentences … he said, ‘Look, you get up every day and you get out here and you play chess, you play basketball and you don’t act like you’re innocent. Innocent people, they’re in the law library,’” Adams recalls. “Ever since that day, that was like a wake-up call to me and I started to try to grasp the law.”
He began to read everything he could at the prison’s law library and learned why his own defense failed him. “I wish I knew every word of the Constitution before I went down to that police station, but I didn’t, right?” Adams says. “I didn’t really realize the magnitude and the seriousness in which the system was systematically putting the noose on young Black men in America.”
He read up on the law, trying to prove his own innocence
Adams put all his energy into trying to prove his own innocence. Through his reading, he discovered that his public defendant failing to locate and call a known witness was a violation of his rights. “Everyone has a constitutional right to an effective attorney,” Adams says. “And so therefore, my constitutional right was violated by not having an effective attorney.”
While in prison, he looked through newspapers to identify attorneys litigating cases in the state of Wisconsin. If it was a case that could support his argument, he would write a letter to the attorney, hoping for a response.
Eventually, he received a reply from a lawyer in Milwaukee. Over the course of six months, Adams worked with the lawyer to begin drafting a habeas petition, creating the groundwork for an argument that would ultimately be successful in the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.
But he needed help getting there.
The Innocence Project accepts his case
In 2004, the Innocence Project agreed to take on Adams’ case. “They came and saw me, finally accepted my case, and when they did they said, ‘Look. You know, this is a good argument that you made, but we really feel like there’s no evidence in your case to be in here on second degree sexual assault. Based on the testimony of the accuser, we don’t understand how on Earth you are in here with 28 years,’” Adams remembers.
In 2006, eight years after Jarrett’s arrest, the Innocence Project argued his case to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago. The court unanimously overturned Adams’ conviction, on the grounds of ineffective assistance of counsel. In February 2007, after he had been incarcerated for nearly a decade, he headed back into a Wisconsin courtroom for the state to dismiss all charges against him.
After eight years, he was finally released
“In less than 10 minutes, the motion was filed, the judge threw down her gavel and I was gone and released out of the courtroom,” Adams remembers. “That judge never looked me in my eyes at all. When I walked out of that courtroom, I said, ‘You might not look at me now, but you’re going to have to see me for the rest of your life.’”
He kept his promise. In February 2007, Adams was released. In May, he was enrolled in college. He began by receiving his associate’s degree from a local community college. Right after, he paid his way through Roosevelt University in Chicago, graduating with high honors and a bachelor’s in criminal justice. And he didn’t stop there. In May 2015, Adams graduated from Loyola University Chicago School of Law.
“I may have graduated from Loyola Law School in Chicago, but I started law school in Wisconsin Department of Corrections,” says Adams.
Not long after, he was hired by the Innocence Project, the same organization that helped exonerate him. Today, he works for his own private practice.
Now, as an attorney, he’s working to bring justice to others
“To be able to go back in a courtroom in the same state in which I was wrongfully convicted, and them now having to address me as an attorney, it gives you a sense of, ‘I am human. I am human, and respect me as such,’” says Adams. Now, he is using his power as an attorney to make sure others don’t have to face the same fate he did.
Black people make up only 13% of the population in the United States, but half of the innocent people convicted of crimes and then exonerated are Black. Black people are also 3.5 times more likely to be wrongfully convicted of sexual assault than White people, according to a 2017 study for the National Registry of Exonerations. While Adams was exonerated, one of his co-defendants never had his charges dropped, while another was never convicted at all, even though all three men were all accused of the same crime, by the same accuser. Experiencing firsthand how arbitrary justice can be, Adams knows how important it is to urgently address the failures of the system.
“I strongly believe that the problems with our criminal justice system will only get better when we infiltrate the system, meaning more Black judges, more Black prosecutors, more Black, young Black attorneys, like young Black knowledgeable, powerful young men changing the stereotype that we’ve had to deal with forever,” Adams says. “That’s what we need, and I’m hoping my story will go to that movement.”