On November 2, 2017, the BYU Law School community was privileged to hear from Jarrett Adams, an exoneree now fighting to free the wrongly convicted. An Innocence Project attorney, Mr. Adams has come full circle, from being accused of criminal conduct to defending the accused.
At the age of seventeen, he was charged with committing first-degree sexual assault. Knowing he was innocent, at no point leading up to trial did he believe he would be found guilty. Nor did Mr. Adams attorney, who decided a “no defense” strategy was the best route to securing Mr. Adams’s freedom. But as Mr. Adams’s story demonstrates, the criminal justice system is far from perfect. After a day-and-a-half trial, he was convicted and sentenced to twenty-eight years in a high-security prison.
When Mr. Adams received news of his co-defendant escaping charges on account of a newly discovered witness statement, he hoped that his prison term would be short. But because his attorney pursued a “no defense” strategy, the reviewing courts saw no error in his sentence. Thankfully, one of his cell mates was familiar with the law and, upon hearing his case, recommended he raise an ineffective assistance of counsel claim. After serving six years in prison, Mr. Adams was able to convince the Wisconsin Innocence Project to take his case. And eventually, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals overturned his conviction. After nearly ten years of incarceration, Mr. Adams was a free man.
But, as he shared with students, adjusting to life outside of prison was a struggle. Mr. Adams had lost ten years of his life and wasn’t sure where to go next. Eventually, he decided he needed to tell his story and help correct flaws in the criminal justice system. After attending college, Mr. Adams went to and graduated from Loyola Law School. Following graduation, he was able to clerk on the same court that overturned his conviction. After his clerkship, he was hired as a fellow with the New York Innocence Project and had the opportunity work as co-counsel with the very attorney who helped secure his freedom.
After sharing his own story, Mr. Adams invited attendees to reflect on the current state of our criminal justice system. Since 1980, the number of people incarcerated has risen from 329,800 to over two million. And minorities and the poor make up most that population. In Mr. Adams’s words, too many people are “guilty of not having enough resources to defend themselves.” Unfortunately, for the people with the power to fix the system, the problems are too often out of sight and out of mind. Mr. Adams closed by challenging students to make a difference, whether that be by working in the public sector or providing pro bono service to those less fortunate. “Just because you may not be a victim of the criminal justice system, doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do something.”