Attorney Jarrett Adams, who was wrongfully convicted for a crime he did not commit, recently helped exonerate an innocent man who was suffering the same fate.
Fresh out of high school and only 17, Adams ventured from South Side Chicago to attend a party at the University of Wisconsin. There he met a young woman with whom he had what he describes as a “completely consensual encounter from beginning to end.”
He went back home, and everything was normal until three weeks later, when he was arrested.
The arresting officer informed him that the woman he had relations with was claiming that she had been raped by Adams and two other teenagers in a group sexual assault.
“My only encounter with the criminal court system was Law & Order," Adams told NBC News. "And 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 to 28 years.”
Having never been arrested before, Adams assumed things would be like they were on TV: he figured if he listened to his court-appointed lawyer, the misunderstanding would get resolved quickly.
Extradited to Wisconsin, the South Sider was told by his court-appointed lawyer that the other side had no case, and that they didn't need to make any arguments or call any witnesses, despite the fact that there was a witness who could corroborate Adams' version of events.
"“This guy is telling us, ‘We know you didn’t do it. They haven’t proven their case. The best defense is a no-defense strategy.’ We’re like, ‘Yeah, sounds good,’ because we didn’t know any better, right?" Adams said. "But in reality, it was a horrible idea to not call any witnesses, not to investigate, and to put this in front of an all-white, racially charged jury. We didn’t stand a chance."
Instead of leaving Wisconsin a free man, Adams was sentenced to 28 years in prison.
While in prison, Adams took an interest in law, reading law books and Supreme Court cases at his facility's law library.
All his research paid off. One of the books outlined a Supreme Court case that made effective counsel a Constitutional right. Adams was pretty sure if a lawyer argued that he had been denied his Constitutional rights by his counsel that he would be freed.
He got in touch with attorney Keith Findley of the Wisconsin Innocence Project, a state chapter of a nonprofit dedicated to justice for the wrongfully convicted, and told the attorney about what he'd found.
Findley was impressed, and took Adams as a client. "He had done his homework. He knew the case, factually, better than anybody, and he knew the law, so that he was engaging with us, discussing legal issues, strategy."
Adams’ sentence was ultimately overturned, and he was freed in 2007 after almost 10 years in prison.
Of course, the story doesn't end there.
After being released, Adams enrolled in community college, received a bachelor’s degree and went on to graduate from law school in 2015.
Recently, he became the first Innocence Project exonoree to be hired as an attorney for the organization.
And this summer, Adams had his first win with the organization.
In a case similar to Adams', Richard Beranek was convicted of rape in 1990. Although he had an alibi, and a witness that placed him in a different state during the time of the alleged assault, testimony from an FBI expert tied him to the crime through a microscopic hair analysis.
However, new DNA evidence proved that the FBI expert was wrong, and thanks to Adams and Findley, Beranek’s conviction was overturned in June.
“This is a storybook," Adams said of the win, "It’s a storybook tale that you wouldn’t believe until you saw it … to have a conviction overturned and in court, in a state that I was wrongfully convicted.”
He hopes it will be the first win of many.
“Nothing pays me back more, or my family, than me walking in the same court, in the same state, where they didn’t even look at me when they gave me 28 years,” Adams said, “But now they have to acknowledge me as ‘Attorney Adams.’”