MADISON, Wis. — Jarrett Adams was 17 years old in September 1998 when he made a decision he would regret for the rest of his life.
He and two friends decided to road trip from Illinois to Wisconsin for a night of partying. The outing ended with a student accusing all three of them of raping her. Adams was sentenced to nearly three decades in prison.
Others in Adams’ situation might have withered away in despair or been consumed by rage, but Adams kept fighting. With the help of the Wisconsin Innocence Project, he eventually walked free.
Adams, now 36, is one of nearly 200 people the Innocence Project has freed since it was founded in 1992 and one of only three exonerees who have become lawyers.
He made his first appearance in a Wisconsin courtroom as a litigator on Tuesday, arguing that a man locked up since 1990 for sexual assault deserves a new trial. The symmetry isn’t lost on Adams.
“I see how one Christmas can turn into five or six,” Adams said. “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.”
Adams, Dimitri Henley and Rovaughn Hill, all from Chicago, drove to the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater on Sept. 5, 1998, for a party. An 18-year-old freshman told police the three men gang-raped her in her dorm room that night. The men countered that the sex was consensual but prosecutors charged them with multiple counts of sexual assault.
Prosecutors dropped charges against Hill after dorm resident Shawn Demain testified Hill was playing video games in his room while the other two were in the woman’s room, casting doubt on the woman’s story that the three men came to her room together. Even more problematic for prosecutors, Demain said he saw the men smoking with the woman later that night.
But Henley and Adams’ attorneys never called Demain to testify. Henley was sentenced to 20 years in prison, Adams 28 years. Adams said in an interview that he and Henley had no chance because they were poor and black.
“The only thing of colour in that courtroom was the judge’s robe, the lawyers’ suits and us,” he said. “It wasn’t about the truth.”
He had been in prison for about a year and had accepted his fate when his cellmate read his case transcripts and told him the charges against him were flimsy. Spurred by the worry lines and wrinkles he noticed on his mother’s face during visits, Adams buried his head in law books seven days a week. The more he learned, the more he was convinced that he deserved a new trial because his attorney hadn’t called Demain to the stand.
He asked the Wisconsin Innocence Project at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for help. Director Keith Findley, a UW law professor, said he thought Adams’ case was a loser. But his students convinced him to take Adams on and Findley discovered he had more than a client. He had a partner.
“It was very obvious from early on that Jarrett is smart and perceptive,” Findley said. “When we met with him, he had a presence. He would debate with us as a colleague.”
Together, they won a ruling from the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that Adams’ attorney was ineffective. Prosecutors dismissed the charges and Adams walked free in 2007. He was 27, living with his mother, with no identification, no credit cards and no insurance.
He saw how the Innocence Project was working to help the wrongfully convicted and decided he wanted to change a system he says is tilted against blacks. He landed a full-time job as an investigator with the federal defender’s office in Chicago and put himself through college, earning a bachelor’s degree and then a law degree from Loyola Law School in 2015. He juggled homework in the morning, a nine-to-five job and class at night.
Whenever he wanted to quit he remembered his mother, Adams said. Getting his law degree was a way of paying her back for supporting him when he was in prison, he said.
“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 joined the New York Innocence Project in 2016. Now he’s trying to win a new trial for Richard Beranek, a Wisconsin man convicted of rape in 1990.
Adams and Findley are working the case together. They contend witnesses put Beranek in North Dakota the day of the crime and new DNA tests show he wasn’t the attacker. They planned to present their evidence to a Madison judge during a three-day hearing this week ‚Äî a proceeding that puts Adams back in a Wisconsin courtroom for the first time since his own conviction.
“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 that I wanted to live,” Adams said. “But I owe a duty and a responsibility to what I see that is going on.”