At the age of 17, Jarret Adams was arrested for sexual assault, a crime which he insists he did not commit. Today, he is in a very different place.
After his arrest in 1998, Adams sat through a two-day trial knowing that he was innocent. The charges brought against him carried the possibility of a lengthy prison sentence.
The whole incident started when the teenager went on a trip to the University of Wisconsin with a few friends. There, Adams and two acquaintances were accused of raping a young woman.
One of the accused teenagers from the group hired a private attorney who promptly provided an alibi witness and conflicting evidence for his client. He was acquitted.
Adams and the other defendant could not afford an expensive private attorney. Instead, they had to rely on a public defender to save them from going to jail for a crime they didn’t commit. Unfortunately, that isn’t what happened.
Their court-appointed lawyer failed to call witnesses that could’ve provided an alibi; the defense lawyer barely offered any defense at all. Instead, the attorney acted under the assumption that the two boys were guilty and his job was to get them the shortest sentence possible. He didn’t consider innocence. Eventually, a jury convicted Adams and sentenced him to 28 years in prison.
While in the prison, Adams began using the available law library to study his case. Once he had basic knowledge of law, the flaws in his defense and trial became clear. Soon, he began to pursue the idea of appealing his conviction.
That was to be no easy task, though; statistics were against him. It’s estimated that 96% of appeals to reverse a criminal trial are not successful. Jarret Adams had just a 4% chance of getting his wrongful conviction overturned.
Adams had nothing to lose. He was already serving a nearly 30-year sentence for a crime he did not commit. He decided to contact the Wisconsin Innocence Project.
While the Innocence Project was working on his case, Adams began using his legal skills to help other inmates. One by one, Adams began winning disciplinary appeals at the prison and helping people collect lost wages. He was building the skills and experience he was going to need to win his own case. Adams had no idea he was honing skills that he was soon going to use to make a living for himself on the outside.
Through the Innocence Project of Wisconsin and Adams’ own contributions, his case reached the federal level when the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed to hear his case. Because of the appellate court process, this was Adams’ last real chance at regaining freedom.
His conviction was unanimously overturned by all three judges.
The court found that there was sufficient evidence of malpractice to believe that the original case would have had a different outcome, similar to that of the privately defended teenager.
But Adams was not out of the woods yet. Legally, Adams could still be tried on the original charges.
With this is mind, the prosecutors offered Adams a deal to avoid a possible retrial and a possible second sentence. All Adams had to do was plead guilty to the crime and he would be given time-served.
Adams refused the offer, something a guilty person is not likely to do.
The prosecutors dropped the charges. After nearly nine years in prison, Adams was finally a free man.
Once Adams was back in the real world, he faced some major obstacles. To start with, the world had changed a lot since he entered prison in 1998.
“I had to educate myself because look, when I went to prison, there was no Google. There was no email. So I had to figure out a way in which I [could] catch up with the world,” he told Ari Melber of MSNBC.
But Adams overcame. After his release, he enrolled in a community college with hopes of one day being a lawyer, a bar-licensed practicing attorney.
After that, Adams found his way into Loyola Law School in Chicago. He graduated with his Juris Doctor in May 2016.
After finishing law school, Adams spent a year working as a clerk for the 7th Circuit (the same one that convicted him) and for a U.S. District judge.
In February of 2017, Jarret passed the bar exam.
Adams now works for the same organization that helped him gain his freedom, the Innocence Project. This nonprofit was formed by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld in 1992 with a mission to exonerate those who were wrongfully convicted using DNA. Since then, the project has helped free over 300 people.
Jarret Adams’ story is one of hope and perseverance. It is a story about the nature of our justice system and about the nature of the human spirit. If it were not for groups like the Innocence Project, Adams would have presumably served a large portion of his 28-year sentence, and that’s a long time for an innocent person to sit behind bars.
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