Jarrett Adams was wrongfully accused of sexual assault when he was 17. After nearly a decade in prison, he had his conviction overturned.
Trigger Warning: Mentions of sexual assault, racism
Jarrett Adams spent eight years in prison for a crime he did not commit. The incident that changed the course of his life took place in the summer of 1998 when he graduated high school and attended a party at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater with his friends at the age of 17. A girl at the party had accused the then-teenagers of rape. Though a witness delivered testimony that contradicted the complainant's story, Adams and two of his friends were charged with sexual assault and arrested. A complex and layered fight for justice ensued until he was eventually released early. After experiencing the terrible realities of America's criminal justice system, he is now a lawyer who helps others like him, CNN reports.
"We were totally innocent, that was an absolute and total lie," he said of the original allegation, which he believed was about his race. "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." This is, unfortunately, a common story. Many others like Adams have succumbed to an oppressive criminal justice system. He was tried as an adult though he was only 17 years old. One of his friends could afford to hire an attorney, but he and his other friend were both assigned public defenders. The initial trial ended with a mistrial as the testimony of their accuser dramatically changed. The court thus ordered a re-trial of the case.
During this retrial, his public defender called for a no defense theory, a strategy that ultimately backfired. This is because arguing no defense would not allow for any witness statements. He explained, "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. 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." Meanwhile, the friend who was able to hire a private attorney did not have to spend a day in prison. "The prosecutor dismissed all the charges against my co-defendant. You would naturally expect that would happen immediately for us," he said. "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."
His friend's attorney had filed for a dismissal on the basis of double jeopardy. They argued that the court could not possibly try him for the same crime twice. Charges against him were dropped by the court when police turned over an imperative witness statement—a tactic not available to Adams as the no defense argument did not allow for witness statements. "That decision not to join in that motion cost me almost a decade in my life," he shared. "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."
His original prison sentence was set at 20 years. That is until he had the opportunity to address the court. He remembered of that moment: "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." Adams found himself in the maximum-security prison. He called his time there an "out-of-body experience." It was a conversation with a cellmate that changed the path he thought he was on.
"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 shared. "Ever since that day, that was like a wake-up call to me and I started to try to grasp the law." Eventually, he learned why his own defense failed him as he read everything he could at the prison's law library. "I wish I knew every word of the Constitution before I went down to that police station, but I didn't, right? 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."
thank you 4 the love & support, the sooner we change how young black men are depicted, the better! pic.twitter.com/HveAg9QYiH— JarrettAdamsLaw (@JarrettFocused) July 21, 2016
He even learned that his public defendant failing to identify and call to the stand a known witness was actually a violation of his rights. Therefore, he regularly looked through newspapers to find attorneys litigating cases in Wisconsin and wrote letters to them. One day, a lawyer in Milwaukee replied. Together, they worked on drafting a habeas petition, developing an argument that went on to achieve success in the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. Additionally, in 2004, the Innocence Project took Adams' case on. The nonprofit, which helps put an end to wrongful convictions, argued his case to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago. The court unanimously agreed to overturn Adams' conviction. A year later, a Wisconsin court dismissed all charges against him—after nearly a decade in prison, he was finally free.
Adams went on to earn an associate's degree from a local community college before graduating with high honors and a bachelor's in criminal justice from Roosevelt University in Chicago. Then, in the summer of 2015, he graduated from the Loyola University Chicago School of Law. Soon after, he began working with the Innocence Project himself. Now, he has his own private practice. He stated, "I may have graduated from Loyola Law School in Chicago, but I started law school in [the] Wisconsin Department of Corrections." He regularly uses his power as an attorney to protect others like him. Adams shared, "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.' 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. That's what we need, and I'm hoping my story will go to that movement."