Jarrett Adams was only 17 years old when an all-white jury convicted him of a crime he didn’t commit. As a result, he was sentenced to 28 years in prison. After multiple appeals and ten years spent in a jail cell, Jarrett Adams was exonerated with the assistance of the Wisconsin Innocence Project. He eventually used his experience to become an advocate and attorney. Earning his JD in 2015, he now practices law in federal and state courts across the country with his firm, the Law Office of Jarrett Adams, PLLC.
Jarrett Adams shares his journey, ordeal, and continued fight for equity within the legal and criminal justice system with his new book, “Redeeming Justice,” scheduled for release in September.
Chicago Defender: What events led to your incarceration and later conviction?
Jarrett Adams: The summer after I graduated from high school, my friends and I would often go to parties outside of Chicago at various colleges. It felt safer than Chicago. I was preparing to attend junior college before heading to a four-year college, so I never experienced college parties before. My friends and I decided to head to the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater for a party. We didn’t tell our parents where we were going.
While at this party, my friends and I had a consensual sexual encounter with a white girl on campus. After the party, we returned home, and I was finishing up my summer job bagging groceries. A few weeks later, I came home, and there was a card in the door. The card said Chicago Police Department-Robber/Homicide with a phone number. I just knew this was wrong, so I called them immediately.
The officer I spoke to told me that while he knew I was a “good kid,” he needed to clear my name and wanted me to come down for an interview. I told him I would as soon as my mom returned home from work in a few hours. That officer said I was 17 and could come down on my own and get it over with.
I get down there, and a Wisconsin investigator interrogates me.
At this point, Jarrett Adams learns the white girl at the party has accused him of rape.
Chicago Defender: What is going through your mind at that moment?
Jarrett Adams: Stunned. I thought they were crazy. I’m telling them my story, and they don’t believe me. We were the only three black kids on this campus. When I was released from the interrogation, they didn’t arrest me for a week. That’s when the naivety began to fall off. My mother couldn’t afford an attorney. We couldn’t fight back.
Chicago Defender: It had to be surreal. Going to jail for a crime you didn’t commit has to do something to you mentally and emotionally.
Jarrett Adams: When the verdict came back guilty, it was as if my body levitated out of my suit. Going to prison was scarring. They gave me an additional eight years because I would not admit to the crime at sentencing. I apologized for putting myself in a bad situation. I apologized to my family, but I would never apologize for something I didn’t do. You just want someone to believe you. My mother and the women in my life knew the man they raised. They continued to support me by writing me letters to encourage me and keep me going. That helped.
Chicago Defender: How did you prove your innocence?
Jarrett Adams: My cellmate was an older white man who would see me playing basketball or chess or talking to my family, and one day he told me that I needed to be working on my case. He said innocent people aren’t playing basketball; they are in the law library. He said if I didn’t sit down and start working on my case, I would be in here for good.
That scared me. Prison is the place where life is put on layaway. It was at that moment that I started working on my case. I was sending letters to everyone proclaiming my innocence and asking for help. My attorney did not do anything. I was the one who found the witness whose statement was withheld during my trial. I had to compel the attorney to speak with the witness.
During the initial investigation, there was a witness who provided a statement disputing everything my accuser said. They saw us downstairs, but that statement was withheld.
Adam’s public defender called for a “no-defense” theory which does not allow any witness statements. It is unknown why the public defender chose this strategy.
The WI Innocence project took Adam’s case in 2004 after reviewing the research and evidence provided by Adams. In 2007 after ten years in prison, the court of appeals unanimously overturned his conviction. He was exonerated but left with conflicting emotions.
Chicago Defender: Exonerated after ten years. What are you feeling?
Jarrett Adams: When we learned that the courts were probably going to dismiss all charges, I thought to myself, “Finally, my mother is going to get to hear what she knew all along. They were wrong and clear my name, but it wasn’t like that.
They filed the motion, the judge ruled, and that was it. After losing ten years of my life, the damage to my reputation, the pain my family went through…that was it.
Chicago Defender: No apology, no admission that this was wrong or an injustice?
Jarrett Adams: No. The judge never looked me in my eyes. I remember walking out of the courtroom saying, “You might not look at me now, but you will have to see me for the rest of your life.”
Chicago Defender: What happened when you returned home?
Jarrett Adams: My family made me get therapy, then I immediately enrolled in school.
Adams enrolled in college and graduated with honors from Roosevelt University with a bachelor’s in Criminal Justice. He then enrolled in Loyola University Chicago School of law and received his Juris Doctorate in 2015. The former defendant was now an attorney.
Chicago Defender: As an attorney, what challenges face formally incarnated and/or exonerated individuals?
Jarrett Adams: There is so much. The system has far-reaching tentacles. The families are affected the most. They are one of the biggest unspoken victims.
This is why I created the nonprofit “Life after Justice.” The criminal justice system is disproportionately impacting African Americans and people of color. And so, if we allow ourselves to be bamboozled into believing that everyone who has an interaction with the criminal justice system is a bad person that we can throw away, then we will never win this numbers game ever.
Chicago Defender: What is your mission now?
Jarrett Adams: I hope that the way I’m living my life will inspire young black kids to go into the legal field. I would love to see a young person aspire to become the next Thurgood Marshall or new generation lawyers. We have to penetrate the system with black attorneys, judges, and prosecutors. I want to help my people. I don’t want anyone to face what I did because they cannot afford an attorney. We have to change the narrative. I hope my story and experience aid in that.
Redeeming Justice: From Defendant to Defender, My Fight for Equity on Both Sides of a Broken System is available on Amazon and other book retailers, September 14th. For more on Jarrett Adams, visit Jarret Adams Law.