As you read his memoir, you realize that Adams has absolutely mastered that art. Taking readers on a journey that starts when he is 5 years old, Adams weaves through family members, neighbors, friends, and the streets and buildings of his childhood. Alongside descriptions of the “well-worn La-Z-Boy recliner” he shared with his grandfather, the chili he helped his grandmother make and the perfectly tended lawn of his family’s home, he writes: “My mother, aunties and grandmother insist that they have to know where I am at all times. I don’t understand. Not at first. But these women know the history of young Black men in our city, in our country, in our society, and on the South Side.” Adams does not shy away from vulnerability, sharing moments of fear, guilt, sadness, shame, hopelessness, happiness, comfort and much more. In vignettes of his mother sobbing in the jail visiting booth, or of his father waving helplessly as the police drove Adams away in the back of a cruiser, he shares the weight of those emotions and lets readers feel them in some way, too.
Adams’s story is a devastating one regardless of how it’s told. But the pages of this book deliver a gut punch, making every step along the way a visceral experience that readers are invited into. Wrongfully convicted by an all-White jury at the age of 17, Adams, a Black teenager charged with sexually assaulting a White teenager, served nearly 10 years of a 28-year prison sentence before being exonerated with the help of the Wisconsin Innocence Project. Known as “Li’l Johnnie Cochran with the glasses” in prison, he delved into the law and fought for years to have his case reviewed while also helping countless others navigate their court cases from behind bars.
ar from writing a superficial hero narrative, however, Adams takes care to ensure that readers see — and feel — his journey through confusion, fear, despair, hopelessness and numbness (“A massive fatigue falls onto me. I feel so tired and weighted down that I can’t move. . . . I burrow back into my hole, mentally. I shut everything out. . . . I don’t write a letter. I don’t think about my case. I just try to escape.”) before he became a fixture in the prison law library.
This story does not end with Adams’s exoneration and release. In 2015, he graduated from law school. In 2017, as a lawyer with the Innocence Project in New York, he fought to have another man’s wrongful conviction reversed — and won. Now in private practice, Adams continues to fight for those wrongfully convicted.
Adams’s road to being a lawyer was deeply shaped by his negative experiences with his own attorneys. He describes a public defender as having “grainy eyes,” as if he had “been up all night” — a lawyer who “sighs massively, impatiently” and “speaks in a monotone” in response to Adams’s questions. He portrays his trial counsel — “an older white man with stringy uncombed brown hair, a beer belly, wearing an ill-fitting sport jacket and pants that don’t match” — as distracted, uninterested and simply waiting for “Miller time” at the end of the workday. And the examples he provides are stunning; upon listening to his accuser testify at his trial, Adams writes: “None of this happened. All lies. But my attorney doesn’t object, doesn’t challenge her, doesn’t point out that she has changed her testimony from the first trial. . . . Oh, right, I remember. That’s his strategy — the do-nothing defense. Do nothing, say nothing.”
Adams largely sticks to his own experience in his discussion of court-appointed lawyers; he does not venture into an analysis of why there are issues with many court-appointed attorneys. Of course, some lawyers simply do not care. While this may have been true of Adams’s trial attorney, throughout the book, he speaks of court-appointed counsel more broadly than that: For example, “one of the three co-defendants in my case never spent a day in prison because his family could afford a competent attorney while I had to rely on a court-appointed lawyer who got me twenty-eight years.”
Adams’s perceptions of — and conversations with — his lawyers were raw to read. As a former public defender, I was on the other side of that jail visiting table thousands of times and worked hard to earn the trust of those I represented. But I worked in offices that had resources, that offered training and support, and that were full of dedicated lawyers who had what they needed to do their jobs well, just like the Chicago office that Adams worked in as an investigator. (He says about the lawyers in that office: “The closer I work with [them], the more I respect them. They work harder than any group of people I’ve seen. They inspire me.”) Those resources don’t exist for many public defenders and court-appointed lawyers across the country. Rampant underfunding and other political choices have put many skilled, passionate lawyers in the position of simply doing the best they can under entirely impossible circumstances.
Adams’s fidelity to the memoir genre in “Redeeming Justice” brings to life the horrors of the criminal system through the eyes of someone readers feel they know: a person who loves and is loved. And the links between his experiences and his choices are clear and stark: His observations of lawyers helped usher him into a career as one, just as his experience of wrongful accusation spurred his interest in exonerating the innocent. A focus on innocence threads through his writing: “I have to become more precise. I have to take my time and go through every fact . . . and then maybe I’ll be able to decide if I think someone is innocent. No. I have to do better than that. From now on, I have to know.” But the systemic problems he describes — such as the ineffective and inconsistent lawyers provided to the poor, and more generally the structural racism and violence of the system — affect everyone caught in that system, wrongfully accused or not. And while focusing on innocence can provide a lens through which to see the system’s harms, it can also imply that some people are more deserving of those harms than others. The power of Adams’s reflections sparked an eagerness in me to hear more of his thoughts on these issues.
The intimacy of Adams’s writing illustrates the inherent violence of our carceral system in a way that would be impossible without his firsthand experience — and without his willingness to share it. With despair jumping off the page, he writes: “The anarchy, the violence, that erupts every day. How can this place, this punishment, this system, this solution, be beneficial to anyone, in any way?”
The title of this moving memoir describes that system as “broken.” But besides showing us the power — for better or worse — that lawyers can have in the system, Adams reveals the system’s innards. The ingrained cruelty and racism. The grave harms it inflicts on all those caught in its web. I would posit that the system he describes is actually working precisely the way it is built to — that it’s not broken at all but is designed to inflict this pain. And we are so lucky that this incredible force, Jarrett Adams, is now part of the fight against it.
From Defendant to Defender, My Fight for Equity on Both Sides of a Broken System
By Jarrett Adams
292 pp. $27