Back in September 1998, Jarrett Adams was just 17-years-old when he and two friends visited Whitewater, Wisconsin from Chicago, Illinois. As the night went on as he visited, things took a turn as a female student had accused Adams and his friends of rape, and he was found guilty, being convicted in 2000. Adams had tried to appeal the case to no avail, but in 2006 he received good news.
Adams received help from the Wisconsin Innocence Project who petitioned on his behalf that there was a lack of evidence and the alleged victim wasn’t called as a witness. With that, Adams was released from prison in early 2007 with his charges completely dropped. He attempted to receive compensation and the case was opened once more, but it was eventually dropped and he received no compensation as a result of false imprisonment.
Hoping to help others avoid situations like this in the future, Adams decided that he wanted to get into law. He enrolled at the Loyola University Chicago School of Law and received his law degree in 2015. He then started working for the Innocence Project as a litigator, helping the organization that had his conviction overturned. As part of the project, Adams also started a non-profit group called Life After Justice to help those that have been wrongfully convicted after being released.
Nearly 200 people have been released from prison after receiving help from the Innocence Project since it started back in 1992, and three of them (including Adams) have become lawyers. He had his first courtroom appearance in Wisconsin in hopes of freeing a person that was convicted of sexual assault in 1990, claiming that the lack of evidence should qualify the inmate for a new trial.
Adams said that “I see how one Christmas can turn into five or six. I see how when you have evidence of innocence, it is immediately doubted and you are up against a slow, long climb to even just get the evidence heard.” At one point, Adams was looking at spending 28 of those long years sitting inside of a prison cell.
Adams knew that he wanted to become an attorney while in prison, and studied law endlessly in hopes of helping his own case. When he was successful, he knew he wanted to help out others. His cellmate was the one that convinced Adams to start studying. “He said, ‘Listen. I go over hundreds of inmates’ cases, and all of them say the same thing: I’m innocent,’” he said. “I’ve never seen a case like yours before. You’re in here for some racist bull crap and you’ve essentially waved the white flag.’”
Adams also says his inmate told him “It’s only going to take a second before you have tattoos on your face and have given up completely and don’t care at all. You need to go down swinging.”
Innocence Project director Keith Findley had to be convinced to take Adams’s case, and is now glad he helped. “It was very obvious from early on that (Adams) is smart and perceptive,” he said. “When we met with him, he had a presence. He would debate with us as a colleague.”
It wasn’t easy for Adams to get into law. He had no money since he had been in prison since he was 17-years-old, and he was living with his mother at the age of 27. He would wake up early in the morning and do his college homework, and then went to his eight-hour job at the federal defender’s office in Chicago before heading to class. They were long days, and Adams wanted to quit several times.
However, Adams pulled strength from his own family, especially his mother. “I derive my strength from her,” he said. “Although this seems like an amazing, impossible feat, it was done. And I’m real. I’m not magic. So it can be repeated with the determination and the will to do it.” He added that “I could have got out, became an attorney and ran off into the sunset in a quest of resources and money to live the way I wanted to live. But I owe a duty and a responsibly to what I see that is going on.”
Adams knows that his situation is a unique one. “This is a storybook,” he said. “It’s a storybook tale that you wouldn’t believe until you saw it.” Before studying law, he said that “My only encounter with the criminal court system was Law & Order. 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 28 years.”