Exoneree to Esquire: The Journey from Fighting for My Innocence to Fighting for the Innocent
On Friday, August 5th, we went to the City Club for a program titled "Exoneree to Esquire: The Journey from Fighting for My Innocence to Fighting for the Innocent" featuring Mr. Jarrett Adams who, in 1998 at age 17, was convicted of sexual assault and sent to prison. After 10 years of hard work on his part (50 letters a week to various people/groups that he believed could help him), he was finally exonerated and then resolved to make the most out of his life. In July he passed the New York State Bar Exam and is now working with the New York Innocence Project. As the program notes read, "he plans to dedicate his legal career to advocating for indigent defendants and working to prevent wrongful convictions."
Before the Mr. Adams addressed us, Ms. Colleen M. Cotter, Executive Director of the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland , a Community Partner for the day, said that the Legal Aid Society takes an interest in City Club programs where the emphasis is on poverty and justice issues because its purpose is to serve people in the low-income bracket and "balance the scales of justice." Another community partner was the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy so Mr. Michael Meuti, the president of the Northeast Ohio chapter, shared with us some startling statistics on wrongfully convicted people before he introduced Mr. Adams.
When it was his turn to speak, Mr. Adams talked about his time in prison which he said was all about warehousing and not about rehabilitation. Undoubtedly, prisons contains a disproportionate number of people of color but contended that if people who lacked money for a proper defense were "green" then there would be a disproportional amount of them in there too.
He was urged by a fellow inmate, who reviewed his case, to start working for his freedom which he finally secured, with the help of the Wisconsin Innocence Project, in 2008 when he was 27 years old. Even though he was innocent of the crime for which he was convicted, he realized that if he had not been the reckless youth that he was then he wouldn't have been vulnerable to be accused of it in the first place. He saw the effect that all of this had on his mother and became determined to better himself. Thus he spoke of his college and law school experiences as well as those when he worked for the Federal Defender Program for the Northern District of Illinois and the people who supported and mentored him along the way.
Not long ago, he and a fellow exoneree established the "Life After Justice Center" which, as its website says, provides "a path for exonerees and parolees to successfully re-enter society."
The first question put to Mr. Adams during the Q and A came from our friend Ms. Meryl Johnson, a retired teacher, about what educators can say to angry, frustrated kids who high-risk for getting into trouble just as Mr. Adams was when he was younger. He replied that teachers can often times have more of an effect on a kid's life than his/her parents and therefore they must encourage him/her not to give up and to find the excellence within himself/herself which can be used to "push forward."
We then asked Mr. Adams about the vulnerability of immigrants/refugees who are living in a culture strange to them with a limited grasp of English. Mr. Adams readily agreed about their vulnerability not only pertaining to them being accused of crimes and not having the legal/financial resources for a proper defense but also, as is the case with the undocumented, being too afraid to come forward if they are victims of crimes. What's more it made no sense to him that some immigrants who are serving time in our prisons will not be released back into our society but deported upon release. In addition, he recognized that they will then be returned to sometimes very violent societies that they fled from in the first place.
One of the other questions that he answered was one from a woman who had a loved one who was serving time in prison for a crime that she contended (as well as other reputable parties) he did not commit. Mr. Adams told her to talk to him afterward and, once more, encouraged her to fight on using all resources available because only "a squeaky wheel gets greased."
At the end of his presentation, Mr. Adams received a well-deserved standing ovation.
Attending this City Club gathering were students from the "Closing the Achievement Gap Program" from John F. Kennedy High School under the guidance of Mr. Cecil Gamble. Other students were brought there by Dr. Sara Schiavoni who teaches a class on the wrongfully convicted at John Carroll University.
It was also neat to see Ms. Amy Newman again after seeing her at the Planned Parenthood function that we attended the night before as did Ms. Meryl Johnson.
Ms. Ellen Schur Brown from the Legal Aid Society said hello to us and Ms. Mary Grace Herrington from Ideastream said to be sure to say hello to her friend, Ms. Margaret W. Wong because "we adore her" at Ideastream.
We shared a table with Dr. Jim Quilty, Jr., a retired pediatrician from MetroHealth, who had been following the Innocence Project for years. It was particularly nice to sit next to Ms. Rachel Lehr, a CWRU law student who had just completed an internship with the Legal Aid Society. Based upon her own experiences working with foreign-born people who had to go to Domestic Relations Court, she agreed with us that it is an often a confusing, perhaps overwhelming experience for them. It is the goal of Ms. Lehr to become an immigration attorney so we urged her to contact "Margaret W. Wong and Associates" if she needed some help.
Margaret W. Wong & Assoc. Co., LLC