Bright future for exoneree

By SpencerRoush

While sitting in a segregated cell for 23 hours a day, packed between four slabs of concrete, Jarrett Adams, a Chicago South Side resident, was researching law cases when he heard the news that after spending eight years in a Wisconsin prison, he was a free man.

Adams worked tirelessly for years, writing letters to law firms and innocence projects. He requested help to get an appeal on his case, which he said was handled poorly by his attorney.

After writing approximately 50 letters a week, Adams began studying law.  When he became more familiar with the subject, the letters were replaced by briefs of his case. After receiving attention from the Wisconsin Innocence Project, he was released from prison in 2007 when the Seventh Circuit Court overturned his second degree sexual assault conviction and claimed his attorney was negligent.

Adams was convicted of the crime when he was 17. Now 29, he will graduate from South Suburban College with honors in May. He said prison changed his life and instead of complaining, he is focusing all of his anger toward his goal of becoming a lawyer.

“I probably would have fell short of my potential if I wouldn’t have went through this,” Adams said. “At the same time, I wouldn’t have signed up for it either.  To be a 29-year-old black male, the odds in the deck are stacked even when you haven’t been in prison.”

He said he wants to prevent wrongful convictions from occurring and hopes to fix some of the problems in the

justice system.

“Wrongful convictions in the justice system are like the closet in your house where you throw all of your stuff in when company is coming over,” Adams said.

Keith Findley, one of the attorneys from the Wisconsin Innocence Project who helped Adams, said DNA testing has allowed many people to prove their innocence. He added that calculating the total number of wrongful convictions is impossible because cases without the luxury of DNA may never be solved or appealed.

“We know that there have been [more than] 250 people exonerated since 1989 of serious crimes, which is almost entirely rapes and murders, based on DNA testing alone,” Findley said. “We also know that’s just scratching the surface, because as wonderful as DNA is, most cases don’t have DNA.”

According to Findley, the one thing that allowed Adams to win his case was the fact that there was a witness, who had never been heard by a jury, that could corroborate his story. He said Adam’s first attorney probably didn’t present a defense because it was assumed the case would be thrown out for the state’s lack of evidence.

The jury ruled in favor of the state because, he said, the defense never used their witness’ account.

“It came down to a ‘he said, she said’ kind of claim, as they often do when the question is consent,” Findley explained.

Adams said the state’s case consisted of the girl’s claim, “he raped me,” without additional evidence or statements from a doctor. He added that at the time, he was so ignorant of the law, he didn’t realize the mistakes that were made in his trial.

“The first year I was living in an out-of-body experience,” Adams explained. “I couldn’t believe I was there.  All the episodes of ‘Law and Order,’ when you’re innocent, you’re innocent. ”

He also said race played a major role in the case.  The charge was that a black male raped a white female, and the jury consisted of entirely  white jurors.

“I went through three jury pools and all of them were white,” Adams said. “I would have been happy to see a green person [on the jury].”

The Wisconsin Innocence Project noticed Adams’ case was under-tried and the witness’ statements were never heard, so they took his case. It was years before Adams was exonerated because their first appeal attempt failed. For his second appeal in the Seventh Circuit Court, Adams

won unanimously.

Throughout these years in prison, Adams studied law each day and continued to examine his own case. “If you give up, who’s going to fight for you? You are your last hope,” he said.

Adams also started looking at the cases of his fellow inmates and became their advocate. While advocating for others, Adams had success in helping people, but the prison saw it as disruptive, which led to his time in isolation.

“It wasn’t looking good for me for a long time, but at the same time I had to develop a psyche that I’m getting out tomorrow, in order to get me through,” Adams said.

Advocating for others and writing briefs for his own cases led to eight years of experience in law, so he said he is just going through the motions of getting his associate’s degree right now. However, he added that there are still many things to learn.

Eric Ferrero, spokesman for the Innocence Project, said many exonerees have had various experiences after returning to society. Ferrero said there are many who decide to practice law after their stint in prison.

“[Exonerees] have gained a really unique prospective on the law, and in some cases, they want to help other people who were in similar situations,” Ferrero said.

Adams said he plans to attend either Loyola University or the University of Chicago, depending on which college awards him the most money.

Ferrero said money and seeking basic necessities can be a common problem for exonerees because it can be difficult to find a job with an accepting employer.

According to Adams, having an expunged record isn’t enough for employers and they often ask what happened during the eight-year gap in his life.

“More often than not, exonerees tell us the best strategy that works for them is to be up front and honest about it and really try to explain what happened,” Ferrero said.

Ferrero explained that another issue in the justice system is the lack of state compensation for exonerees. He said only 27 states have a law to provide money.

Because Adams was tried and convicted in Wisconsin, he qualified for funds, but the state refused because he couldn’t reach an even higher standard of innocence that the claims board demands.

“If you do get compensation from them, it’s terribly miserly,” Findley said. “It’s $5,000 per year of wrongful incarceration, which is capped at a total of $25,000, plus attorney’s fees. It’s insulting.”

Adams said the outcome wasn’t a surprise.

“It was clear and convincing evidence for me to be given my life back, but it’s not clear and convincing for me to be compensated $25,000,” he said.

Adams said he is not complaining, but wants change in the justice system. He said to check back with him in several years to see where he is in his life and career and how he’s overcome adversity.

Adams’ story will also be featured in Just Released, a publication that caters to inmates and ex-offenders, which is run by British Digby, a graduate of Columbia.