In 2017, attorney Jarrett Adams won his first case. At the age of 36, he helped to overturn a guilty conviction and set an innocent man free. While that is certainly impressive, it is not the most remarkable thing he has achieved. Adams, who was wrongfully accused and convicted of sexual assault as a teenager, spent nearly a decade behind bars. However, he was adamant about proving his innocence. After spending countless hours at the prison’s law library and writing lots of letters, he was able to file an appeal. Thanks to the Wisconsin Innocence Project, he was exonerated and released. After prison, he studied law and became an attorney.
Adams and two other teens were accused of a sexual assault that allegedly took place during a trip to the University of Wisconsin.
In 1998, 17-year-old Jarrett Adams had just graduated from a high school in the south side of Chicago. In a mood for celebration, he and his friends decided to attend a party at the University of Wisconsin. At the party, he met a young woman and the two hit it off. According to Adam, they had a “completely consensual encounter.” Three weeks later, in the fall of ’98, he was preparing to begin his junior year in college. Little did he know he would soon be arrested. The aforementioned woman had claimed that Adams had raped her. As a result, he and his two friends were being charged with group sexual assault.
Adams kept insisting on his innocence from the start and thought that it was all just a big misunderstanding. Having never faced troubles with the law before, he believed the issue would be resolved in no time. However, things took a turn for the worse and he was extradited to Wisconsin.
Adams’ court-appointed lawyer failed to provide adequate legal assistance, and as a result, he was convicted of a crime he did not commit.
At the trial, one of the accused was able to provide an alibi witness along with conflicting evidence regarding the incident thanks to the help of a private attorney. He was acquitted. Adams, on the other hand, was not so lucky. He was unable to hire an attorney, and his court-appointed lawyer failed to provide a proper defense. Even though there was a strong witness who could have corroborated the timeline that Adams put forward, the defense did not present his testimony at the trial. In fact, his lawyer kept insisting that a no-defense strategy will be the best.
Merely a kid at the time, Adams did not realize how terrible that idea was until it was too late. He later claimed that his race played against him. The all-White, racially-biased jury saw an African-American man being accused of something very heinous, and the defense did not call any witness to the stand. The trial was over and his fate was sealed. Adams was sentenced to 28 years in prison.
In prison, a cellmate encouraged him to keep going and take matters into his own hands, and Adams threw himself into studying the law books at the library.
The idea of spending the better part of life in prison can break anyone’s spirit, but being wrongfully convicted of a crime is so much worse. Despite the life-altering sentence, Adams did not give up. His cellmate encouraged him to study law at the prison’s library and try and fight the conviction. That is exactly what Adams did. After spending countless hours at the library, he came across a Supreme Court case which clearly stated that every defendant has the right to effective counsel. After finding out about the Wisconsin Innocence Project, Adams contacted attorney Keith Findley. The nonprofit organization then took his case and thus began the next chapter in his journey.
Finally, in 2007, Adams’ sentence was overturned, thanks to the efforts of Keith Findley.
Despite knowing that it was a complicated case, Keith Findley of the Wisconsin Innocence Project took it on. An experienced lawyer, Findley had studied the case inside and out. He knew the loopholes that the defense could use to its advantage. He regularly communicated with Adams, and they came up with a strategy. Eventually, Findley was able to have the conviction overturned on the basis of ineffective assistance of counsel.
After he was released from prison, Adams enrolled in a community college to complete his bachelor’s degree. After that, he went to Chicago’s Loyola Law School. He graduated in 2015. During his time in law school, Adams sought out public service opportunities. For some time, he worked at the public defender’s office and also on a court-ordered review. The dean of Loyola Law School praised Adams for his dedication and determination.
After earning his law degree, Adams went on to join the team at the Wisconsin Innocence Project. It was the first time an exoneree had been hired by the organization.
After passing the bar exam, Adams found himself back in court. However, this time, he was on the other side, fighting to free an innocent man.
Adams took the bar exam in the summer of 2015, and by fall, he had won a fellowship that offered him a clerking position at Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. It was the same court that freed him after overturning his conviction. Needless to say, walking into the same courtroom as an attorney was a surreal experience for Adams. As he sat there, took notes, observed the arguments, and listened to the judge, he could not help but remember his own battle that took place in that very room.
Adams received the 2012 Abraham Lincoln Marovitz Public Interest Scholarship offered by the Chicago Bar Foundation. He is also the proud winner of the National Defender Investigator Association’s Investigator of the Year award. His remarkable story garnered both local and national recognition. At one point, media outlets were clamoring to make his story heard, and #JarrettAdams became a trending topic on both Twitter and Facebook.