June 16, 2021 – Fifteen years ago, on June 30, 2006, the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a criminal conviction against Jarrett Adams on the basis that his trial lawyer failed to mount an effective defense, failing to investigate a crucial witness.
By that time, Adams – convicted on five counts of second-degree sexual assault alleged to have occurred on the campus of U.W.-Whitewater in 1998, when he was 17 years old – had served almost 10 years of a 28-year sentence at a maximum security prison.
Adams’s appointed lawyer did not offer any witnesses despite inconsistencies in the accuser’s statements, and a failure to investigate or call a potential witness who saw the accuser socializing with Adams and his two friends after the alleged crime took place.
Adams’s lawyer “committed to a predetermined strategy without a reasonable investigation that could have produced a pivotal witness,” wrote Judge Daniel Manion for a three-judge panel, reversing rulings by the Wisconsin Court of Appeals and the Wisconsin Supreme Court under Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984).
The panel also found a reasonable probability that the outcome of Adams’s trial would have been different if not for the ineffective assistance of his trial counsel. Thus, Adams’s last resort, a writ of habeas corpus, was granted and he was released in 2007.
Adams, who lost a decade of his life to a wrongful conviction levied by the Wisconsin criminal justice system, earned a law degree in 2015 from Loyola University in Chicago, and joined the bars of Illinois and New York. Last year, he was admitted in Wisconsin.
Last week, Adams was the closing speaker at the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Annual Meeting & Conference. He detailed his case, the struggles he endured, and discussed what must be done to address mass and disparate incarceration in Wisconsin.
“While there is triumph, there is most certainly tragedy in the story of how I got here, and how so many others are lost in the justice system,” Adams said. “Race and equality are difficult subjects. But we have to talk about them to find a solution.”
Just a Normal Kid
Adams grew up on Chicago’s south side. He attended Chicago Public Schools and his mother, his aunt, and his grandmother raised him. His grandparents brought the family to Chicago from Mississippi for a better life. Adams was on his way to junior college.
Joe Forward, Saint Louis Univ. School of Law 2010, is a legal writer for the State Bar of Wisconsin, Madison. He can be reached by email or by phone at (608) 250-6161.
At 17, the summer before his freshman year, he and two friends – Dimitri Henley and Rovaughn Hill – drove to U.W.-Whitewater for a party without telling their parents.
“They were doing things there that you can find on all college campuses,” Adams said. “There were underage, unsupervised kids drinking, smoking, and having a good time. And yes, there are sexual interactions that occur at these parties.”
What happened in the minutes and hours that followed was the subject of numerous trials and appeals in the state and federal courts over the next 10 years, all based on an accusation that Adams, Henley, and Hill had raped a freshman in her dorm room.
But the stories of witnesses, including accounts from the accuser and her roommate, were not consistent. Some days later, police asked Adams to come in voluntarily for questioning about a robbery/homicide. He said they were mistaken but went in.
“I was asked questions about a party in Wisconsin, and I told them everything I’m telling you now,” Adams said. “At the end of this interview, I found myself being charged as party to the crime of sexual assault.” He was booked into the county jail.
“There was some belief that arose of this allegation that we were kids from Chicago, from the projects, no good, unfit for society,” Adams said. “None of that was true. We all came from good families and never had any interaction or experience with the law.”
Hill’s parents were able to afford a private lawyer. Adams and Henley received appointed panel lawyers as indigent defendants. All three were tried together in a first trial, which was declared a mistrial when the prosecutor tried to amend the charges.
“We go to a first trial,” Adams said. “It’s the first time that I ever really knew what we were accused of. I knew we were accused of a rape, but I didn’t know the details.”
“It was so false, it didn’t make any sense,” Adams said. “I couldn’t believe it when I was listening to it in court. I’m looking at my attorney the entire time and saying, ‘where is this coming from.’ He’s looking at me saying, ‘don’t worry about it, we’ll deal with it.’”
“That was the first time, at my young age, that I realized, this isn’t Kansas anymore,” Adams said. “Something was going on and it was above my head and out of my reach to understand at all. But I was on this ride and there’s was no getting out of it.”
“I’m telling you what’s going on now from a lawyer’s perspective, after getting my degree, but as I’m going through this, I have absolutely no idea what is being said.
“I don’t understand the Latin terms, and neither does my mother. We are too embarrassed to even ask for clarification as to what’s going on.”
Hill’s lawyer then filed an appeal on double jeopardy grounds, and his case was severed. Lawyers for Adams and Henley did not join that appeal.
“Our attorneys never gave us the option to join in the motion,” Adams said. “It resulted in us going down the trajectory that we went down.”
That trajectory meant proceeding to a second trial with a “no defense” strategy, which assumes the state does not have enough evidence to meet each element of the crime.
“I know this isn’t a good idea, but I’m looking at the pains and creases of anguish on my mother’s forehead,” Adams said. “When the attorney asked me if I’m okay going forward, I made the decision based purely on wanting it to stop for my mother. I wanted to redeem myself and I wanted it to be over and I wanted to go to college.”
Adams and Henley were tried together in a second trial. After a day-and-a-half, the jury convicted them. Henley was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Adams received 28 years, an additional 8 years because he refused to apologize for a crime he did not commit.
Hill’s case was still going through the appeals process.
Jarrett Adams shares his story as the closing plenary speaker at the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Annual Meeting & Conference.
Adams and Henley were shipped to a prison in Dodge County for the first year. “I can’t really put into words the shell shock feeling that is to be a kid, a teenager amongst adult offenders,” Adams said. “When I got to prison, I just remember all the guys looking at me and they were asking me if I got transferred from the juvenile facility.”
At some point, a violent incident occurred, and the inmates were put on lockdown. “It was the first time that I had the opportunity to interact with my cell mate,” Adams said.
During lockdown, Adams was able to talk to his Mom and aunt, who just couldn’t understand how he was in prison on a 28-year sentence. When he returned to his cell, Adams’s cell mate, who worked in the law library, asked to look at his case file.
“Within the course of a three-day lockdown, he had gone through my transcripts and my paperwork,” Adams said. “I come back in from the rec yard one day – I’ll never forget – and he was waiting. He said he was never getting out, two life sentences.”
“He said ‘I look at you, I listen to you speak, and I see you reading all of these books, then I see what you do when you leave the cell. You go play basketball, play chess.’”
He told Adams it wouldn’t be too long before he had tattoo teardrops under his eye and he was waiving a white flag. “It was that moment that really woke me up,” Adams said.
Then he told Adams to write down the name of a case: Strickland v. Washington. He also pointed out a paragraph in a police report statement from a U.W.-Whitewater student named Shawn Demain.
“My cell mate found it strange that someone like that would only have a police report that made up about a paragraph,” Adams said.
“I had forgotten that when we initially made it to the campus, we met a student named Shawn Demain. I just didn’t understand how important he was,” Adams said.
A Path to Exoneration
Adams contacted Hill’s attorney about Demain. Hill’s double jeopardy appeal was denied and they were preparing for Hill’s second trial.
“I wrote Hill’s attorney and said ‘look, you need to talk to this kid because I remember more.’ They went out, found the kid, and presented him at the second trial.” The jury came back 11-1 in favor of acquittal, which set up a third trial.
After Hill’s second trial, Adams realized that Demain’s trial testimony included details not included in the police report. “It was the very first time that we found out that there was a three-page statement by Shawn Demain that clearly undermined the allegations from the very beginning,” Adams said. “We never got it.”
Adams contacted Hill’s attorney again, and Hill’s attorney contacted the prosecutor. “The prosecutor called the officer, and the officer miraculously was able to find Demain’s three-page written statement and turned it over,” Adams said. “Hill’s charges were immediately dismissed in 2001 and he was never tried again.
“You would think naturally, because of the Brady violation, we would have our case reversed and be able to stand trial again, if that’s what the prosecutor wanted to do,” Adams said. “That’s not what he did.”
Sink or Swim
For the next six years, Adams fought tooth and nail for his exoneration. But not before enduring periods of anxiety, depression, and despair.
“I am not going to make it seem like I took this on the chin, that I got right off my bunk and immediately started to fight,” Adams said. “That’s the opposite of what happened.”
As his high school classmates were entering their third year of college, Adams was still sitting in prison. Adams shut down. He refused his mother’s calls and visits.
One day, Adams was in the maximum security prison in Green Bay. The guard told him he had a visitor, and Adams said he did not have a visit scheduled.
“He said, ‘this is coming from the warden’s office. Get your stuff on right now, and go on this visit, or you’re going to segregation.”
“When I make it up to the visitation room, it’s that same familiar face, that woman with deep wrinkles of anguish on her forehead,” Adams said. “My mother was not going to let me ignore her. Not even a prison could keep her from loving me.
“On this visit, she told me she wanted me to fight. She said ‘I want you to fight for me. It’s not fair, it’s not right, but all we have left is to fight.’ And goddam fight I did. From that point on, I spent all my time in the law library.”
As the Wisconsin appellate courts denied Adams’s appeals and his state court remedies became exhausted, he had one remedy left: a habeas corpus petition.
He sent countless letters to attorneys, asking for help. One responded: Robert Henak, a Milwaukee attorney. Adams drafted a habeas petition, and Henak agreed to review it.
“I wrote this habeas in my cell on a typewriter, and you could not tell me this was not the best habeas ever,” Adams said. “When I sent the habeas to him, and he sent it back, the only thing I remember not being crossed out was the case caption. That goes to show you how severely people need and deserve representation in these situations.”
Then Adams sent the draft to the Wisconsin Innocence Project, which took the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.
U.W. Law Professor Keith Findley, co-founder of the Wisconsin Innocence Project, argued the case with the help of Jon Pray and project law students. When Adams was sworn into the Wisconsin bar last year, Findley waived him in.
Adams’s story, and Findley’s involvement, were featured by Lester Holt of NBC News in 2017. Adams tells his story often, because he says it’s necessary.
“I realized that although it pains me to go through the details of this story, it’s is important to save other 17 year old’s like me,” Adams said.
“If I have to die by 1000 cuts telling this story to people and decision makers in Wisconsin and all over, I will take those cuts gladly. But I can’t do it alone” Adams said. “The judiciary, attorneys, and mental health care is how we fix this.”
Adams says his reintegration was not easy. “There’s no book for reintegrating back into society, especially for the wrongfully convicted,” he said. “Whether a person has done something and served their time, or they are actually innocent, it is the same car wreck.”
“People leave with different ailments. I have my ailments as well. But with the help of my family, was able to get the mental health care that I needed.”
Adams went on to a judicial fellowship with Judge Ann Claire Williams of U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, the same court that exonerated him, then joined the New York Innocence Project before starting his own firm based in New York City.
With his Wisconsin law license, he also serving as of counsel at Birdsall Obear & Associates LLC in Milwaukee, in addition to his other work to help exonerate other wrongfully convicted individuals in the U.S., and address systemic problems in the criminal justice system.
“After that NBC News piece, I got a reminder of why I got this degree,” Adams said. “It wasn’t to say that I’m a lawyer and wear nice suits and make money. It was to help.”
He said Wisconsin needs to figure out its mass and disparate incarceration problem, one of the worst in the country, and lawyers play an important role.
Adams said he is still helping his friend, Dimitri Henley, who was released soon after his own release. Henley has a family now. But he must register as a sex offender.