After spending 10 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, he seeks to help others avoid a similar fate.
Jarrett Adams Fights The System That Failed Him After Wrongful Conviction
There’s no way to overcome losing a decade of your life by being in prison. It’s even tougher when you were wrongfully convicted of a crime.
When Jarrett Adams was 17, he attended a college party that changed his life forever. A consensual encounter led to Adams being accused of rape. An important statement from an eyewitness was withheld from the trial, and subsequently led to Adams being sentenced to 28 years in jail.
Eventually, with the assistance of the Wisconsin Innocence Project, the eyewitness statement was released, Adams’ conviction was reversed, and he was exonerated — but only after having already served 10 years of his sentence. Seeking to keep others from suffering the same fate, Adams set his sights on the other side of the legal system by becoming a top defense and civil rights attorney.
He is also an author, and his recently released book, “Redeeming Justice,” is testimony to his refusal to give up on himself. It points out the cracks in a flawed system and shows his commitment to fighting the very system that failed him.
During a recent conversation with Adams, Zenger got a detailed breakdown of what led to his sentence, why he felt compelled to write “Redeeming Justice,” and much more.
Percy Crawford interviewed Jarrett Adams for Zenger.
Zenger: I can relate to your story, given the fact that in 1998 you were 17 years old, and I was 18 years old. The only difference is, I was playing high school football, and you were fighting for your freedom. You were falsely accused of rape — how did this situation come on you?
Adams: It was scary if you think about it because I often time tell people, I wasn’t in and out of juvie (juvenile centers), doing drive-by shootings or none of the stereotypical stuff that people would throw on us and say, this kid was bound to be a statistic. What we would do, me and my friends would get together and go party outside of the neighborhood because it was so damn dangerous. If you’re not getting shot or shot at by the dudes on the street, you’re getting pulled over and hoping you survive an encounter with the police in your neighborhood.
We got together and we would do this often. We would tell each other’s parents, “I’m going to spend the night at so-and-so’s house.” We would take off, go to these house parties, and we did that on this night like we did many nights. We went to a college party. The same things that we did was what everybody on campus was doing.
There were make-out sessions in every room, people were drinking and smoking. It was an embarrassing situation that this young lady’s roommate walked in on, but it was not criminal, man. We weren’t them kids. Who would be stupid enough to be the only three black dudes on the campus, go rape a white girl in a dorm full of white people, and allow the roommate to walk in, take a halftime break, and then come back and continue to rape? It never made sense.
We have been depicted in such a way historically that it makes it easy for people to believe the most demonized thing that they can about a young black man — even if you’re faced with the reality of, “Hold on, this doesn’t make sense.” You never give the benefit of the doubt to the young black man. That’s how the system has been designed. My mom used to say all the time: “You can’t do what other kids do.” I never understood the depths of that, but what she was saying was, ain’t nobody giving you the benefit of the doubt when you’re a young African American kid. That’s what life was.
Zenger: The cops got involved; you were eventually arrested for this. At 17, you had to be scared to death.
Adams: It was scary… the real reason it was scary is this: I come from a household where you respect your elders, you don’t talk back, the same way you was raised down South. My people [are] from Jackson and Cleveland, Mississippi. I get home from this party, and about three weeks later, there is a card in my door telling me to come down to the police station, robbery/homicide. So, I call the guy, and I’m like, “You definitely got the wrong person.” And he was like, “No, you’re right. I want you to come on down and take a picture and clear your name. You’ve never been arrested before.”
I take my dumb ass down there listening to this dude. I’m 17 and he tricked me. Brother, listen to me when I tell you, and I know you’re going to feel me when I say this. I thought I had nothing to worry about because I was telling the truth. I was so naïve. I hadn’t had those experiences. As a result of that, it sent my life on a tailspin. That experience woke a sleeping legal giant.
This wasn’t one of those, there is an accusation made, and the police come and arrest me on the spot. No! That never happened. What saved our life is this, and this is why I encourage everyone to read the book because it gives you all the details of how it went down. And what’s important is this: After this young lady’s roomie walks in and they start arguing, we all go downstairs in the smoking area. We’re in the smoking area and that’s when we see all of the college students, and again, we’re the only black dudes there.
It saved our life, because there was a white student named Shawn Demain who had given them a statement the day after this false accusation like, “That’s not what happened. We saw the black dudes, they were up and down the stairs, they were all around.” They withheld that statement from us. We never got that statement from them to be able to use it. It changed the trajectory of everything. That statement is what led to the reversal of my conviction 10 years later.
Zenger: While in prison, you decided you didn’t want to just fight for your injustice but for others wrongfully incarcerated as well. You come out, you pass the bar and become a criminal defense attorney. Tell us about the aftermath of being released from prison.
Adams: It wasn’t an easy feat at all. There was so much life lost. Imagine screaming you’re innocent to the top of your lungs for a decade, and then finally, the courts agree. They overturned my conviction, expunged my record, but the damage was not expunged. I missed the cookouts, I missed the graduations, the birth of family members. You can’t replace that. You can’t replace sitting down and being introduced to the family members who were born while you were locked up, and they looking at you like, “Who is this?”
I vividly remember coming home and visiting people in nursing homes, I’m taking them to dialysis, I’m walking around the neighborhood, and I don’t see a pay phone. I remember getting on the bus with a handful of tokens, and they looking at me like a damn fool. The bus doesn’t take tokens no more.
I want you to highlight this as well:I wouldn’t be where I am right now without the encouragement of my family to get mental health care and to decompress. Let it out. That’s what a lot of our young kids need, and they’re not going to do it unless the people in front of them that they look up to are bold enough to talk about it and share their pain and story. I was angry, man. It wasn’t God-like. A fire within you is good, but you need to keep it in your belly; if not, it will consume you.
I had to learn how to keep the fire in my belly and to not let it consume me overall. Therapy just let me talk about it. You ever been going through something, and you got it out, whether you cried it out, talked it out, you have that relief. That’s exactly what mental health care is. Think about the cities down there in Louisiana and think about Illinois, think about what our babies see on a regular basis. You can’t tell me that ain’t stressful. If it is, it’s not post-nothing, it’s persistent traumatic stress syndrome. If it wasn’t for my family getting me to redirect my energy in a positive light, I probably would have tried to take a shortcut.
Zenger: I read where you said, when you came out of prison, your mom gave you a phone and the first time she texted you, you didn’t even know what a text message was.
Adams: Exactly! When the message came through, I had no clue what it was. Part of the reason I wanted them to put your call through… because my schedule crazy, but I wanted them to slide you in because I get a lot of reporters sticking mics in my face now. I can be sitting on the porch with you right now talking. That’s how comfortable you and I are vibin’ right now. It’s important that we tell each other’s stories as well.
Zenger: Not to give away too much of the book because it’s a must-read, but I have to ask you, do you feel the system is broken or intentionally flawed?
Adams: This is how I would explain it: The system is designed flawed. When we say it’s a broken system, there was an idea that was created around the criminal justice system, the reason why it was flawed is because the people who created it didn’t look like me, you, or any other ethnic person. I’ll give you an example. If you get accused of whatever it is you get accused of, and when you get accused of it, Percy gotta put up his house, or Jarrett gotta put up his land or property.
That sounds good for people who have houses and property. When the people created the criminal justice system and all the things in it, they didn’t take into account people like me and you, our mothers and fathers. If they didn’t design it to equally protect us, it’s going to disproportionately impact us. That’s what’s going on. We don’t throw away the entire idea of cooking with gas just because it burned a steak. We go back in, we acknowledge it, and we fix it.
Zenger: What influenced you to write “Redeeming Justice?”
Adams: I send a shout-out to black women. I used to wonder, “Why the hell I have to always call you when I’m leaving out the house, or just a couple of blocks away, momma? Why I gotta call you when the streetlights coming on or you heard an ambulance? Why do you have to be so worried?” You know what, Percy, I will never ask that question again because I see why. The boys these black women give birth to that they pray become men are under direct threat, and the men that they love and conceive with are under direct threat. Nobody has been stronger than black women in history.
What I wanted to do was tip my cap to my mother and my two aunts. They remained and stood firm. Brother, you know how many family members get lost when you go through something like the joint. I could’ve written the book and clearly said, death to all the people involved, they’re racist, but that wasn’t going to accomplish my goal. I wanted to make sure I acknowledge the black women, the suffrage and the praying. I have had mothers come up to me in the airport and say, “Look, I just want to thank you because that scene you describe of your mother crying in the bathtub was me.”
Adams: It means that the light is coming on. If you look back, it was more than Dr. [Martin Luther] King, it was more than Malcolm X and Harriet Tubman. Those are the names they told us about. But there were several other people who were on the front lines moving this thing along. I’m praying through people like A.I. and Larenz that folks understand I’m a part of that generational torch carrier, a person who is leading other people and preparing their hands to carry it the rest of the way. This is about duplication.
This isn’t about Jarrett Adams, this isn’t about the brand, this is about preparing the next hand to carry the torch. That’s what we have to do.
Edited by Matthew B. Hall and Judith Isacoff