Jarrett Adams is a criminal defense attorney who has devoted his career to bringing justice to the underserved. But his first and most profound encounter with the law occurred when he attempted to prove his own innocence after being wrongfully imprisoned for nearly a decade.
Attorney Jarrett Adams was instrumental in overturning an innocent man’s conviction in the same state where he had been sentenced to prison for a crime he did not commit years before.
Adams’ first professional victory came in this case. But it was also very personal for Adams, who spent nearly ten years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of sexual assault in a case that he believes was tainted by racism.
In an interview with NBS news, Adams said, “This is a storybook.” “It’s a fairy tale that you wouldn’t believe unless you saw it… to have a conviction overturned and to be found innocent in a court, in a state.”
Adams’ life was put on hold at the age of 17 after an encounter at a party, an accusation, and a court-appointed attorney.
One summer party changed the course of Jarrett Adams’ life
He had just graduated from high school on Chicago’s South Side and decided to attend a party at the University of Wisconsin, where he and his friends met a young woman and had a “completely consensual encounter from beginning to end,” as he describes it.
Adams was arrested three weeks later, as he was preparing to start junior college in the fall of 1998. An officer informed him that the woman had claimed she had been raped and that he, along with two other teenagers, was being charged with a group sexual assault.
Adams was a first-time offender who had never been arrested before. He initially denied the crime and assumed that the misunderstanding would be resolved quickly.
Instead he was extradited to Wisconsin, where he could not afford legal representation. Even though there was a witness who could have helped clear Adams: a student living in the dorm who could corroborate Adams’ timeline of events, a court-appointed attorney chose not to present a defense.
This guy is telling us, ‘We know you didn’t do it. They haven’t proven their case. The best defense is a no-defense strategy,'” Adams said. “We’re like, ‘Yeah, sounds good,’ because we didn’t know any better, right? But in reality, it was a horrible idea to not call any witnesses, not to investigate, and to put this in front of an all-white, racially charged jury. We didn’t stand a chance.”
The result was a conviction with a stunning 28-year prison sentence for Adams; 20 years for another teen who couldn’t pay for representation; and an acquittal for the third, who had hired a private lawyer, and called the alibi witness.
“My only encounter with the criminal court system was ‘Law & Order.’ And at the end of those commercials, and that theme music comes on, you don’t see guys who are wrongfully convicted go to prison and get sentenced to 28 years,” Adams said.
Jarrett’s cellmate told him not to give up
Inside the prison, Adams met a cellmate who worked for the prison law library and encouraged him to seek a reversal of his conviction.
“‘Listen,’ he said. I examine hundreds of inmates’ cases, and they all say the same thing: ‘I’m innocent.’ ‘I’ve never seen a case like yours before,’ he said. You’ve come here for some racist nonsense, and you’ve effectively waved the white flag,’ “Adams stated.
He was urged not to give up by his cellmate: “It will only take a split second before you have tattoos on your face, have given up, and don’t care. You must go out on a high note “He informed Adams.
As a result, Adams began reading law books and discovered a Supreme Court case stating that the Constitution required defendants to be provided with effective assistance of counsel. He contacted attorney Keith Findley of the Wisconsin Innocence Project, a state chapter of the nonprofit dedicated to obtaining justice for wrongfully convicted individuals.
Findley was well aware that the case would be difficult, but he decided to take it on.
“He’d done his research. He knew the facts of the case better than anyone, and he knew the law, so he was engaging with us, discussing legal issues, strategy, and so on “According to Findley.
Adams’ sentence was eventually reversed, and the charges dropped for the same reason he had discovered in the prison law library books: ineffective assistance of counsel.
The Innocence Project agreed to take on Adams’ case in 2004. “They came to see me, finally accepted my case, and then said, ‘Look. You know, this is a good argument you made, but we really believe there isn’t enough evidence in your case to be here on second degree sexual assault. Based on the accuser’s testimony, we don’t understand how you’ve been in here for 28 years.’ “Adams recalls.
The Innocence Project presented Jarrett’s case to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago in 2006, eight years after his arrest. Adams’ conviction was overturned unanimously by the court due to ineffective assistance of counsel. After nearly a decade in prison, he returned to a Wisconsin courtroom in February 2007 to request that the state drop all charges against him.
“The motion was filed in less than 10 minutes, the judge threw down her gavel, and I was gone and released from the courtroom,” Adams recalls. “That judge never looked me in the eyes. When I walked out of that courtroom, I told myself, ‘You may not look at me now, but you’ll have to look at me for the rest of your life.'”
Adams enrolled in community college a month after his release in 2007, went on to earn his Bachelor’s degree, and then attended law school, graduating in 2015.
In 2016, he became the Innocence Project’s first exoneree to be hired as an attorney.
“What I wanted most was for my mother to not duck her head in her Bible and cry when people asked about her son when she went to church. And I wanted her to be proud”he stated.
Soon after, Adams was back in a Wisconsin courtroom, this time working alongside his former attorney Findley to free another man they believed had been wrongfully convicted.
In 1990, Richard Beranek was convicted of rape. Despite the fact that he had alibi witnesses who placed him in another state at the time of the rape, the jury found the testimony of an FBI expert tying him to the scene through microscopic hair analysis compelling enough to convict him.
Findley said Adams, who served time in the same prison as his client, was dedicated to his client’s release.
“I can tell Richard about what I’ve seen other exonerees go through and how the experience looks from the outside, but I can’t do what Jarrett can. I couldn’t speak with the authenticity of knowing how it feels, which Jarrett can “According to Findley.
A Dane County circuit judge overturned Beranek’s conviction in June, citing DNA evidence proving the FBI hair analysis was incorrect. Beranek is now a free man, thanks in large part to Adams’ tireless efforts.
“Nothing repays me or my family more than walking in the same court, in the same state, where they didn’t even look at me when they sentenced me to 28 years,” Adams said. “However, they must now refer to me as ‘Attorney Adams.'”
Adams is also a co-founder of Life After Justice, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preventing wrongful convictions and building an ecosystem of support and empowerment for Exonerees’ as they rebuild their lives after exoneration.
“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.”
Now that you’ve read about Jarrett Adams, read about How a man wrongly convicted of murder uses his settlement money to open barber college with his former prison guard. Then read about the case of Lawrence McKinney; who was Compensated $75 For 31 Years Of False Imprisonment.