A Call to Redeem Justice

September 14, 2021   •   By Gil Garcetti

Redeeming Justice: From Defendant to Defender, My Fight for Equity on Both Sides of a Broken System

Jarrett Adams

REMEMBER THE SUMMER after your high school graduation, crossing the threshold of adulthood with hope and perhaps a little trepidation? Imagine being a 17-year-old recent high school graduate, a young Black man living on the South Side of Chicago. You have been raised primarily by a loving single mother, aunts, and grandparents. You have made them proud — and not only by graduating. With Mom’s guidance, you avoided the plagues of crime and drugs that destroyed the lives of so many of your classmates and neighbors. You have never been arrested, rarely drink, and have stayed away from drugs other than occasional recreational marijuana.

Even though you are planning to attend a community college in a few weeks, rather than hang out on the South Side of Chicago, you and your two best friends, also Black, begin to socialize with college students. You sometimes drive over an hour to attend parties.

You were raised to respect women, to understand that no means no. You followed this rule with your high school girlfriends, as you do with the young women you meet at parties.

You and your two friends arrive at a dormitory on the University of Wisconsin–Whitewater campus to attend a party. You enter and meet a male student named Shawn. You hit it off immediately and become immersed in playing a video game together in his dorm room. His room appears to be party central, with students coming and going. Several partygoers are drinking and smoking marijuana. You take a couple of hits of a joint.

Later, two young women come into the room and get everyone’s attention. One of them sits on your friend’s lap. She is white. She invites you and your friends to come up to her dorm room. You tell your friends to go ahead and that you will join them when you finish the video game.

Eventually, you go to her room. The young woman is there alone with your two friends. After a while, each of you engage in a separate act of consensual sex with her. At one point, her roommate comes into the room and angrily accuses the young woman of “having sex on my bed!” She calls her a slut, and storms out. The young woman tells you and your friends to “just act as if nothing has happened.” She leaves to find her roommate. You and your friends stay in her room until she returns, and she repeats what she wants each of you to say.

The three of you, and the young woman with whom you engaged with in consensual sex, walk down the dorm stairs and rejoin the party, outside in the “smoking area.” Later, you and Shawn begin playing video games again. Everything seems to be fine with the young woman; she never says anything about having had sex, certainly doesn’t mention a sexual assault, and the party continues. Later, her roommate appears. When tension escalates between the two, the young woman says, “I don’t need this,” leaves, and you never see her again that night. The party lasts until about 3:00 a.m. You exchange contact information with Shawn and return to Chicago.

Now imagine your horror when police arrive at your mother’s house with guns drawn to arrest you for a crime that did not occur: rape.

“We have a warrant for your arrest,” an officer says.

I start to explain that they’ve made a mistake, that I’m innocent.

Police swarm me.

They handcuff me.

I start to scream, but the words stay caught in my throat. The world starts to whirl. My legs buckle. […] Then I think of my mother, and a tremor of shame slices through me.

These are the gripping words of Jarrett Adams, author of Redeeming Justice. In 1998, when he was 17, he was wrongly accused of rape, convicted, and sentenced to 28 years in prison. When I received the prepublication copy of Adams’s book, I anticipated taking 10 to 12 days to read it. I finished it in two days.

From the first page, Adams enabled me to empathize with the frustration, dismay, and outrage of being trapped in a maze of injustice. His story affected me, as has none other, telling the tragedy of a life broken, if not ruined, by a failed criminal justice system imbued with racism. Adams was seemingly blindly and constantly hammered by a so-called justice system every day of his personal odyssey that began with his arrest.

First there was the young woman who denied that the sexual act was consensual. Then the Wisconsin police investigator who interviewed him and asked, “Why would this white girl from up in Wisconsin, the first time she meets you guys, three Black guys from Chicago — why would she consent to have sex with you?” Later, and now in the Chicago jail awaiting extradition, a jailor asked, “Why are y’all go up there to Wisconsin and rape that little white girl? They don’t play in Wisconsin. They’re going to hang you in Wisconsin.” Adams responds, “Look at me, I’m 17 years old. I’ve never been in trouble in my life. I’ve never been in jail. I don’t have a record. You’re not going to find my name in your system, because I never done anything.”

And that was only the very beginning of a more than 10-year nightmare involving law enforcement officers, defense lawyers, prosecutors, and judges. Somehow, through his determination, focus, and with support from others, Adams still exudes positivity, resulting in the dismissal of the rape charges, release from prison, and expungement of his criminal record.

The author is obviously smart, persistent, and determined, but he is also rightfully angry, frustrated, hurt, and hugely disappointed with how the so-called justice system robbed him of 10 years of his life.

His anger is first directed toward his virtually useless court-appointed lawyer who inexplicably fails to call witnesses and does not present the evidence that would prove that the sex act with this young woman was consensual. He is also angry with the police officer who did not turn over exculpatory evidence.

Adams was greatly disappointed with all the judges he encountered. He was dismayed with the preliminary hearing judge who — even though he did not find that the evidence proved a “first or second or even third-degree sexual assault” — did not dismiss the case. He just passed it on to the trial court. Adams was disheartened by judges who would not release him without cash bail that his family could not afford, even though he had never before been arrested and lived with his mother, a career employee with the federal government.

He was tried and convicted in Jefferson County, Wisconsin, by a jury that did not include any Black men or women. It is a county with a population that is 96 percent white. One of his friends, Dimitri, was tried with him and convicted. The third friend, Rovaugn, was tried separately. Rovaugn’s family was able to retain a private defense attorney who introduced exculpatory evidence and called witnesses who corroborated that the sex was consensual. That jury hung 11-1 in favor of acquittal. His case was ultimately dismissed. Adams however, remained in prison because his lawyer did not call the same witness that Rovaugn’s lawyer had, a percipient witness whose testimony would prove that the sex act was consensual. Rovaugn’s lawyer also introduced evidence that the police hid exculpatory evidence from the defense lawyers of the three accused men. Adams’s lawyer did not, even though he was aware of this fact.

When the Adams’s trial judge, who had been prepared to deliver a 20-year sentence, added another eight years, Adams was in shock and disbelief: why the extra eight years? Because, the judge said, “[w]hen given the opportunity to express remorse, you showed none. Since you feel no remorse, I’m giving you an additional eight years.” But Adams had not been able to truthfully express remorse when he knew that the sex act was consensual, and, all agreed, that the act of sex involved no threats or physical violence. Even the young woman agreed there was never any physical violence or threats of violence; she testified that she was scared.

In the end, Adams’s experience with the criminal justice system, while robbing him of years of his life, also empowered him to aspire to something he’d never dreamed of becoming: a lawyer. With certainty, Adams will now change the lives of many others. His incarceration, and the injustices he experienced, propelled and motivated him to earn his AA degree, bachelor’s degree, and his law degree. Today. he is a practicing lawyer with his own law firm. One of his primary goals is to motivate other Black men to do the same, to become a lawyer fighting injustice.

But Adams’s story is not just about himself. It’s about his mother, his grandmother, his aunts, and his grandfather. His supportive family shares his hurts and setbacks. They never stopped encouraging him to pick himself up and continue his fight. Without them, Adams, as mentally strong as he is, might not have survived his criminal justice ordeal.

Even before his prison cell door slammed shut, Adams had begun to write the appeal to overturn his conviction; but he needed guidance. His mother scraped together enough money to hire a private attorney, Rob Henak, who greatly reduced his fee to work with Adams for the initial part of the appeal process. They labored intensely for weeks to craft a brief to ask the federal court to accept the case and grant a court hearing based on the ineffective assistance of his counsel at the trial. If granted, Adams would represent himself at any hearings before the court. The court had the authority, with or without a hearing, to accept Adams’s argument that he had ineffective assistance of counsel. Such a ruling would require a new trial or dismissal of his case. But the court could also summarily refuse to hear his case without any written reason why it was being denied. The odds against him were great. Only about two percent of the cases in which the appellant represents himself on appeal in the federal courts are successful.

For every waking minute, Adams was either working on his legal brief or writing letters to lawyers and pro-bono legal organizations, pleading for assistance with his appeal and representation in court; none offered help. Fortunately, his exhaustive quest for representation paid off at the last minute.

With time running out for him to file his appeal, the Wisconsin Innocence Project at the University of Wisconsin Law School offered to represent him, both in drafting his appeal and representing him in court. Without the dedication of Professor Keith Findley and his team of law school students, including Courtney Reed, Jim Miller, and Carl Williams, Adams would likely still be in prison today. He describes in the book the race against time working with the students and Professor Findley to file the appeal in federal court. His appeal was delivered to the court on the very last day the law allowed.

Days, weeks, months pass without word. Finally, the news arrives. The court denied his petition. There were no reasons offered by the court as to its decision. While he had been hoping for success at this lower level of the federal court system, Adams had always felt that it was likely the case would be resolved on appeal to a higher court, the federal Court of Appeals.

Adams continued to work with the Innocence Project team to write what they all hoped would be a more compelling brief to the federal Court of Appeals. The appeals court could have simply denied Adams’s appeal or accepted it and scheduled a hearing date.

Time drips … drips … drips … […] [T]he calendar reads 2006. With the New Year comes an unseasonably sticky heat in the air that signals a premature spring. My cell turns into a sweatbox. I pace, my head pounding, my pores gushing. The heat suffocates me. My body feels on fire. Then one day, I get the word that the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals will hear the oral argument.

On the day of the hearing, Adams is not permitted to be in attendance, but is allowed to listen to the proceedings on the phone. He is represented in court by Professor Findley. The hearing lasts 20 very short minutes, at least from Adams’s perspective. Now there is nothing to do but again wait. And wait and wait he does. One hundred and thirty days are about to pass when a prison guard comes to his cell and tells him he has a “legal call.” Professor Findley’s voice is the first he hears, and then Carl, one of the student volunteers for the Innocence Project, asks Adams, “Did you hear what we said? You won.”

A joyous moment for all. But even that was not a get-out-of-jail card. The Jefferson County district attorney’s office still had 120 days to decide whether to retry the case or dismiss it.

Each morning feels like a week. Each afternoon, another week. Good nights don’t exist. They seem like shadowy versions of the day. Lying in bed, I replay the first phone call: Carl telling me we won, the phone line going dead, the second call with Keith explaining the time I have left … one hundred and twenty days … 119 … 118. One day at a time.

The prosecution took virtually every minute of the 120 days, while Adams remained in custody. Finally, the district attorney’s office conceded and declined to retry the case. It was dismissed by the court. All records regarding his arrest and conviction were wiped away by court order. He was an innocent man who had been wrongly convicted of a crime that he did not commit. In fact, there never was a crime.

To give you more of a taste of the compelling nature of Adams’s story, and as a lure to have you to read his book, consider this prose:

[We] stand shoulder to chest, back to back, butt to butt, claiming my space in this scrum, waves of hot, vile breath blowing on my neck and face, mixed with the smells of urine, vomit, liquor, sweat, body odor, and recent defecation. I pinch my nose with my fingers, try to shut out the smell. I can’t.

[…]

I don’t sleep the night before my sentencing. I allow time to pass, counting the minutes in my head. Nothing seems real. None of it. In the morning, I move in slow motion. I pick at my food, push it around with my fork. I can’t eat. I can barely walk into the courtroom. I feel numb. Then, as the minutes tick by, I feel — dead. […] But as I sit in the courtroom, waiting to hear a judge assign how much time I will be confined inside a box with bars for a crime that never happened, I feel as if I were not me, that I no longer exist.

I could share many more examples of his powerful storytelling, but I leave you to discover these. I am certain you will be moved, outraged, and even charmed, as was I.

In the same vein as Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy, Adams’s Redeeming Justice helps shine a light on the inequities rife in our criminal justice system. It is a clarion call to each of us to work hard to reform that system until it is in fact one of justice, and not one of injustice.

Ours is a nation imbued with systemic racism that informs past and present policies concerning education, health, housing, employment, finance, business, government, voting, and policing. As informed and caring citizens, it is not possible for us to try to focus on every aspect of our systemic racism. As a former district attorney of the nation’s largest local prosecutorial office, I have decided for the foreseeable future to focus on police reform and the justice system. I accept nearly all that Adams and others decry as systemic racism in our local and national systems of justice. Perhaps you might consider joining us in the venture to change that.

But first, read Adams’s book. Better yet, study his book. Share the book with any book group/club that you feel would benefit from it. Read similar stories, like The New York Times Magazine, July 4, 2021, cover article “Can You Please Help Me Get Out of Prison?” Watch the 2020 YouTube interview conducted by actor Morgan Freeman of Albert Woodfox, a man who was forced to spend 40 years in solitary confinement. Go to www.goodreads.com and look for the section on “Criminal Justice” books. Finally, ask yourself, your friends, family, and members of groups you belong to, how can we help make the justice system much truer to becoming a “justice system” for all members of our society? Develop a game plan and then move forward with it.

If you need or want to be inspired even more, consider inviting Adams to speak to your audiences. He is in the process of relocating to Los Angeles and is planning on opening a branch of his law firm in Los Angeles in 2022.

In preparing this review, I met with Adams. We had an engaging two-hour conversation. He is as impressive in person as the person he brings to life in his book. He emphasized his hope that the book will inspire more young Black men to become lawyers. “I tell them that the odds of them becoming a lawyer are so much greater than them becoming the next LeBron James.” He added, “When they hear what I have had to endure growing up and going through the so-called justice system, I hope my story inspires them to get the education that will make them proud Black men.”

During our conversation, he surprised me by focusing not on the ordeals he endured, but on the importance of the mental health assistance he has received and still receives. In the Black community, as in many other communities, there is often a stigma attached to reaching out for and receiving mental health assistance. “I resisted it continually. My mother and aunts never gave up and finally convinced me to seek professional help. Luckily for me, and for my wife and family too, I jumped in, and it was one of the smartest decisions I ever made.”

Adams’s other hope is that his book will inspire its readers to mentor a young Black boy or girl and enable them to lead a life that they would have no other way of envisioning. The story Adams tells in this book is so outrageous, powerful, and compelling. I believe it demands that the reader take a step further. As caring and responsible citizens, we each face the challenge of working to identify, disrupt, and dismantle the systemic racism in our society. I suggest you focus on one aspect of racism: unjust and racist criminal cases. Those of us who are not Black can never fully comprehend and understand what a Black person must deal with every day of his life — especially in the criminal justice system. This book gives us a firsthand look into the anguish and ordeal of being a Black man caught up in the system. I strongly suggest you take advantage of the insight Adams has given us.

The challenge is huge. There are roughly 2,000,000 people in our criminal justice systems, overwhelmingly people of color. But we should also not forget that the criminal justice system touches countless millions of their family members — as well as each of us.

I urge you to learn what law enforcement issues are being discussed in your state. Make yourself heard regardless of what position you take. It is important to be aware of all criminal justice reform legislative efforts. Examine those bills that you deem of particular import or interest and then be sure to share your position on those bills with your assembly member, state senator, and governor.

It is only with powerful storytellers like Adams, and engaged citizens like you and me, that we can overcome the enormous political power of law enforcement unions that have strongly resisted urgently needed police reforms.

Adams’s moving story in Redeeming Justice left me with hope that the injustice he suffered can be leveraged for lasting change and perhaps even systemic transformation. He makes an especially potent point when he writes:

We put our focus and our money into one side — incarceration. The United States recently quadrupled the budget on corrections. That makes no sense. We should be putting more money into education — early childhood through high school — for kids who live in poor neighborhoods. Studies show that educational programs reduce crime. We should be investing in those programs and in teachers, not in prisons. As I discovered when I got put into segregation twice for no reason, when you build prisons, you have to fill the beds.

Adams’s vital book asks us for help in changing the criminal justice system. I invite you to join Adams, me, and other advocates such as author Bryan Stevenson, justice and voting rights advocate Stacey Abrams, executive director of Alternatives to Incarceration Initiative in Los Angeles County Songhai Armstead, founder and executive director of UCLA’s Social Justice Learning Institute D’Artagnan Scorza, president of the NAACP Derrick Johnson, Congresswoman Karen Bass, California State Senator Steven Bradford, Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón, Los Angeles County Supervisor Holly Mitchell, Los Angeles City Councilmember Mark Ridley-Thomas, and director of the Juvenile Justice Clinic and Initiative at Georgetown Law Kristin Henning. Together, we can help rid the racism that pervades our criminal justice system.

Now it is up to each of us to answer the call.

¤

Gil Garcetti was a prosecutor with the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office for 32 years, eight of which he was the elected district attorney (1992–2000).