Attorney Jarrett Adams at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse, Friday morning, March 9, 2018. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Wrongful conviction takes Chicago man to a righteous place

Just when you think the ugliness in the world is overtaking the goodness, you hear a story that restores your faith.

Jarrett Adams’ life story is one of those.

Adams was 17-years-old when he was wrongfully convicted for the rape of a white woman on a college campus in Whitewater, Wis.

Now, Adams is a lawyer working to help other wrongfully convicted people gain their freedom. Adams is in Chicago this weekend and was scheduled to speak at Northwestern University on Saturday.

I spoke with him by phone Thursday.

“That summer when I was arrested, I was getting ready to start college,” he said. “We went to a party in Wisconsin where there weren’t any black people.

“This party was no different than other college parties. There was drinking, smoking and making out, and we were taking part.

“Three weeks later, we were falsely accused of a sexual assault, and police withheld evidence that supported our innocence,” Adams told me.

Attorney Jarrett Adams talks with a client at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse, Friday morning, March 9, 2018. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Attorney Jarrett Adams talks with a client at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse, Friday morning, March 9, 2018. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Adams grew up on the Far South Side in a household that included his mother, aunts and grandmother.

“It was in the ‘90s, when crack put a noose on the South and West sides. If you could get to graduate and not go to prison, they would bring the parade and float down the street.”

Three weeks after the Whitewater party, all three black youths were charged with rape. Only one of the accused could afford an attorney.

Adams and a co-defendant — both represented by public defenders — were convicted.

Adams was sentenced to 28 years in prison.

Asked at sentencing whether he had anything to say, Adams apologized for being in the situation.

“I knew God, and I knew I wasn’t supposed to be at this party,” he told me. “I even told my mother I was sorry. But I wasn’t going to apologize for a rape that I didn’t commit.”

Adams was in the criminal justice system for eight years before the Wisconsin Innocence Project got the conviction overturned.

“They fought it all the way to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals,” he said.

When he finally went home, Adams had to face a life interrupted.

“I looked through the photo albums, and my pictures stop at high school graduation,” he said. “It broke me down and motivated me all at once. At that point, I just said to myself I owed my mother and two aunties. They came through the snow in Wisconsin to see about me.”

Adams enrolled in South Suburban Community College and graduated at the top of his class in 2010. He found work with the Federal Defender Program and went on to enroll in Roosevelt University.

But here’s the part of the story that gives me goosebumps.

In 2012, Adams won the coveted Chicago Bar Foundation Scholarship, presented annually to one law student in the state of Illinois.

Adams credits retired 7th Circuit Judge Ann Claire Williams with making his legal career possible.

“I wasn’t going to be able to go to law school,” he said. “I was 30 years old. I didn’t even have a bank account. And she selected me, and the rest of the panel went along with it.

“After I graduated, Judge Williams gave me a dual fellowship where I clerked for the 7th Circuit — the same court that overturned my conviction.”

Adams ended up meeting his wife through Williams’ “Just the Beginning Foundation,” and they were married in Williams’ chambers.

Adams went on to start his own law practice in New York but comes back to Chicago often to help the wrongfully convicted.

“I care so much about what goes on in Chicago, and I will certainly continue to practice here,” he said. “I really look at what is going on and the carnage on the South and West sides of Chicago, and I only hope that we can someday make being a young black lawyer as cool as kids think it is to be a young black rapper.”


What does it mean to be color-struck — and can dogs suffer from this condition?

Find out on this week’s “Zebra Sisters” podcast hosted by my longtime friend and former Sun-Times reporter Leslie Baldacci and me. Each new episode of the podcast is available on Saturday. You can join the conversation at or give us a shout-out at Zebra Hotline at (312) 321-3000, ext. ZBRA (9272).

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