When Jarrett Adams appeared in the criminal courthouse at 26th and California on Wednesday, it was his first day representing a client as a newly minted lawyer.
What set the day apart even more: Adams himself had been freed from prison in 2006 after an appeals court overturned his sexual assault conviction.
He went from being a jailhouse lawyer to a real one. Now, he’s part of a team of defense attorneys fighting for the release of Kevin Bailey, a South Side man seeking to get his conviction overturned in the 1989 killing of the wife of a retired sergeant with the Chicago Police Department.
Adams is working with New York attorney Bryce Benjet of the Innocence Project and Chicago attorney Joey Mogul of the People’s Law Office to free Bailey based on new DNA evidence.
On Wednesday, Adams, dressed in a tailored blue suit and brown shoes, approached the bench with the defense team. Benjet introduced Adams to Judge Alfredo Maldonado, explaining that Adams was making his first court appearance and was a Loyola University Chicago law graduate.
“What brings a new perspective and is something we should acknowledge is that Jarrett was wrongfully convicted in Wisconsin,” Benjet said.
The judge nodded and said, “Congratulations on joining the profession. Nice to meet you, sir.”
Adams’ first time in court as a lawyer lasted only about 15 minutes, as special prosecutor Myles O’Rourke filed an objection to the request for a new trial, and the judge scheduled another hearing next month.
“It was kind of surreal to be in there — from being in prison to being able to argue for someone else,” Adams said. “It wasn’t a bad day. Of course, a better day would have been [Bailey] getting out.”
Bailey and co-defendant Corey Batchelor were convicted of killing Lula Mae Woods. Batchelor is now free after spending 15 years in prison. Bailey landed an 80-year prison term and remains behind bars.
Woods, 69, was found stabbed to death in the garage of her home in the 9300 block of South Union. Police said she was robbed of $100 she’d brought home from a bank.
The police found a Domino’s Pizza cap under her body, but hair inside it didn’t match Bailey or Batchelor, according to DNA tests conducted over the past two years. Nor were fingerprints found on items in Woods’ purse theirs.
Bailey’s attorneys and Joshua Tepfer, the lawyer for Batchelor, say their clients, both 19 at the time of the killing, confessed because detectives fed them information about the crime scene and they were choked and threatened.
On Wednesday, the prosecutor objected to vacating their convictions. He wants a hearing to determine the significance of the DNA results and also said the claims that the confessions were coerced were filed too late to be considered.
Adams, 36, said he knows of only a few other people who have become attorneys after being exonerated of serious crimes, like murder and rape.
“Not only can I say ‘I know how you feel’ to the clients, but I can also articulate it to a court so that they can hopefully understand,” Adams said after Wednesday’s hearing. “I am the possibility of what can happen, plainly put.”
In 1998, Adams was 17 and living in the southwest suburbs when he and two friends traveled to the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater, where they met some students at a dorm. They were accused of the gang rape of a woman in a dorm room, and Adams was sentenced to 28 years in prison after being convicted of sexual assault.
In prison, he started reading law books to understand the criminal-justice system that had put him there. Later, with the help of the Wisconsin Innocence Project, he won an appeal, and his conviction was overturned.
Adams maintained that the sex was consensual. The Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals threw out his conviction because his lawyer had failed to present a witness who saw the woman later smoking cigarettes with Adams and his co-defendants in a common area of the dorm.
Adams went back to school, graduating from Roosevelt University and then from Loyola University Chicago’s law school. He landed prestigious clerkships often reserved for Ivy League graduates, including one in Chicago with federal appellate Judge Ann Claire Williams — who wasn’t involved in his earlier appeal — and another in New York with U.S. District Judge Deborah Batts.
Adams passed the New York Bar exam in February. Now, as a member of Bailey’s defense team, he’ll concentrate on the forensic evidence in the case.
“The goal at hand is to get this client out,” Adams said. “I have encouraged him to keep the faith. But this is a moment where I can say, ‘Wow.’ I have come full circle.”