By Bob Glaves | CBF Executive Director
I first met Jarrett Jarrett Adams in 2012, when he applied for and received the CBF Abraham Lincoln Marovitz Public Interest Law Scholarship. But the traumatic and unsettling experience that drove him to pursue a legal career and do the amazing work he is doing today started much earlier.
Now a successful lawyer focused on helping others who have been wrongfully convicted, he has written a book coming out on September 14 about his experience. Redeeming Justice is a stirring memoir that appropriately features this teaser on the cover: “From Defendant to Defender, My Fight for Equity on Both Sides of a Broken System.”
When Jarrett was just 17 years old, he was wrongfully convicted of a crime and sentenced to 28 years in a maximum-security prison. After serving nearly 10 years and filing multiple appeals, Jarrett was exonerated with the assistance of the Wisconsin Innocence Project.
Jarrett used the injustice he endured as inspiration to become an advocate and attorney for the underserved and often uncounted. With a boost from the Marovitz Scholarship, Jarrett earned his J.D. from Loyola University School of Law in 2015. After law school, Jarrett served as a public interest fellow for Judge Ann Claire Williams in the 7th Circuit and for a judge in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. He also worked for the Innocence Project in New York as their attorney that was formerly an exoneree. Jarrett then started his own firm, the Law Offices of Jarrett Adams, which now has offices across the country, and remains active in the related nonprofit he helped found, Life After Justice.
Recently, I had the opportunity to interview him about the book and what drove him to write it. Below is a summary of what he had to say and his inspiring message for our legal community.
BG: Tell us about the book
JA: The focus of the book is not the case.
The reason is we have seen and heard and continue to hear these stories about these wrongful convictions and how they happen. They truly happen because the system is man-made and man-operated, and we can’t assume and expect it to be perfect and not get anything wrong. But there is a lot more we can do to prevent it from happening and help right the wrongs more quickly.
I wanted to focus on the process of going through it and show how the community helped me to get out of it after I was exonerated. There were important connections through the Marovitz Scholarship, through Judge Williams and the Just the Beginning Foundation, and opportunities to have lunches with prominent people in the legal community that came from that.
All of that allowed me to catch up on something that is not usually considered a loss when you hear about wrongful convictions. We always hear about the loss of life and opportunity to make a living, which I can confirm are very real, but in my opinion, the most valuable thing lost through a wrongful conviction is the opportunity to make connections and build a network to help you succeed.
All the connections that start in college and from there, I was robbed of that. I never had a chance to go off to college because I went off to prison. It is this big gap in personal and professional relationships that I had to make up for. The community came together to help me, and now I want to help others and inspire more people to get involved to help even more who are facing these circumstances.
BG: What drove you to write the book?
JA: By opening myself up in this book, I hope to inspire a new generation to take up this cause.
Jarrett Adams Law can make a real difference in representing young Black men who are my clients and the immediate lives around them. In order for me to really make a bigger impact though, we need to inspire everyone to understand and empathize with these issues to build the base of advocates and resources necessary for change.
BG: What is it like writing the book from a personal standpoint?
JA: It was a two-year process to write it, and there are no shortcuts. I thought it would be important to talk about the journey, which shows how easily the system can grab young men, specifically young men of color, and never let them go.
It would be easy to look at me and say he’s strong, he’s got this. But the vulnerabilities, the mistakes, the learning, the mental health care, the three Black women superheroes in my life (my mother and two Aunts), and the relationships I have built through networking…All of that made up who Jarrett Adams is today.
The fact that I was able to come out and be representing folks in similar circumstances, it is a blessing but still not without its tentacles from the wrongful conviction and being in the system.
BG: How did the case shape what you are doing now?
JA: I saw firsthand what the process of facing a wrongful conviction is like when you don’t have resources. When going through it, you can see an early difference between those who have money to have lawyers and those who do not and are appointed attorneys.
My mother could not afford a lawyer. Our one co-defendant who could afford an attorney, his lawyer kept filing motions until the evidence of innocence materialized and he got his case dismissed. For me and my other co-defendant, we had to go through the whole process, and it worked out very differently.
The difference was his mom could afford an attorney and we couldn’t. My mom watched as I was laying on the train tracks and the train of injustice was coming, and she could not do anything.
I was angry and upset that my mom could not enjoy her life while I went through all of this. Now I want to make my mom proud, to do things that are amazing and pay her back but at the same time, to provide a voice for those on that island of injustice going through it.
BG: You mentioned Judge Williams, when did you meet her?
JA: That connection came through the CBF and the Marovitz Scholarship. As soon as she saw my application, she reached out. It is intimidating to meet powerful federal judges, and I was able to meet one who was in the Court that overturned my conviction. I still remember that first meeting with her, because years later, I would be married by Judge Williams in those same chambers
When I first met her, I explained that gap in personal and professional relationships you aren’t able to get due to being in prison. She helped me make up for that, and we fleshed out the idea to create a fellowship where I would start by working with her and then finish in New York. I had the opportunity to learn from Judge Williams in 7th Circuit and then finish up with a judge in the Southern District of New York, and I did all the same things the Clerks did. And that has been invaluable in my practice today.
BG: Stepping back for a moment, what drove you to go to law school?
JA: I thought about how can I swing the biggest stick for change, and a law degree was the perfect way to do it.
Our country was founded by lawyers and advocates, and what plagues the community I come from the most? The laws and litigation. Lawyers predominantly don’t look like what their clients look like, and I wanted to be part of changing that.
My idea may be far-fetched, but there was a time that everyone said hip hop had a shelf life and would be over and done with soon. Before you knew it, it only became bigger and started to transcend generations and backgrounds, where kids from every demographic are listening to it and it is part of our culture today.
Hip hop gave kids an idea of attaining something different. I want to show kids on the south and west sides of Chicago that yes, you can be an entertainer or an athlete, but you can also be a lawyer who can have lifelong effects on people who look just like you.
BG: How did the scholarship impact you?
JA: I was working two jobs at the time and would have had to do that to pursue law school, and the scholarship allowed me to take a bit of a breather so I did not need a second job and could put appropriate focus on law school.
As I noted earlier, it also was a chance to meet Judge Williams, Andy Marovitz, and so many others in prominent positions who I would not have had the chance to meet and have as part of my network.
BG: Tell us more about your practice today
JA: My firm has Chicago, New York, and LA offices now and has been growing fast from the start. At the firm, I do some criminal defense but mainly civil rights, Section 1983 cases.
Those cases have helped us start a nonprofit, Life After Justice, where I am able to work on actual innocence cases without taking a salary. Our hope is to secure funding that will allow me and other attorneys to do the work of Life After Justice pro bono.
Life After Justice helps us get resources from a broader pool of supporters and pro bono lawyers and focus on litigation that gets at overarching criminal justice reform issues. It is designed to help stop this from happening to others.
The focus is not just on litigating, but a heavy focus on rebuilding the men and women who have been wrongfully in system. To give them the tools to get back on their feet.
BG: Have you met Bryan Stevenson in the course of your work?
JA: I have met him a couple different times when we were both at events, and I have read Just Mercy. I hope some day to get to sit down and get to know him more.
BG: As you know, his book “Just Mercy” got made into a movie a couple of years ago, do you see that in your future?
JA: If it happens it would be great, but if my story is told I hope it is like the book. I want people to know how many Jarrett Adams there are who we may be missing out on.
If it becomes a movie, I hope it shows the struggle, how important mental health care was for me, the effects on the community, and how the community extended its palms to me and lifted me back up. I did not do it alone and it did not happen overnight.
BG: Bryan had Michael B. Jordan play him in Just Mercy, who would you want to play you?
JA: Well, Michael B. Jordan is a great actor, but Bryan already used that one up. My wife has a star crush on him so I would not want him to play me anyway!
If a movie about my story ever comes to pass and someone is going to play me, I really love Anthony Mackie, and LaKeith Stanfield would be great too.
BG: Thanks for your time today Jarrett, and congrats again on the upcoming release of Redeeming Justice, I am already looking forward to reading it. Scott Turow and John Grisham are among those who recommend your book. I already pre-ordered it and encourage everyone to get a copy too. I know Judge Abe is very proud looking down from above.
You can pre-order Jarrett’s book here or get it at your favorite bookstore after September 14, and you can learn more about how you can support the work of Life After Justice by visiting their website, https://www.lifeafterjustice.org/.