While spending nearly nine years in Wisconsin prisons, Jarrett Adams said he respected the legal process and helped other inmates with the legal documents in their cases.
"I started to love the law," Adams said. "I loved and respected it even though it was not working in my favor at the time."
His legal odyssey began, when at age 17, Adams and two other men from Chicago were accused of sexually assaulting a female student at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.
Following his conviction and 28-year sentence, Adams worked on his own appeals to prove his innocence while in prison. The Wisconsin Innocence Project at the University of Wisconsin Law School later helped Adams with his case.
In September 2006, the 7th Circuit in effect reversed his conviction and held that his original trial lawyer deprived him of his constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel.
Following his release from prison in February 2007, Adams worked odd jobs to make money to earn an associate degree from South Suburban College. He then enrolled at Roosevelt University and pursued a bachelor's degree in criminal justice.
Adams said he graduated at the top of his class with a 3.9 grade point average in May.
For about two years, he has worked as an investigator for the Federal Defender Program in Chicago.
Late this month, Adams, 31, will continue his work as a full-time investigator and start as an evening student at Loyola University Chicago School of Law.
While in prison, he said his mother and two aunts prayed for him daily.
"I want them to see me do a completely 180-degree turn," he said.
When asked if he remained bitter about his time in prison, Adams said, "I had to let that go. I had to turn that into positive energy."
Laura A. Caldwell, a senior lecture in residence at Loyola law school, said Adams became involved with the school's Life After Innocence project. Caldwell serves as director of the project she founded in 2009 to help the wrongfully convicted and accused after their release from prison.
"This kid is going to knock it out of the park," Caldwell said about Adams. "He will do whatever he wants in the legal field."
The Chicago Bar Foundation recently awarded Adams its Abraham Lincoln Marovitz Public Interest Law Scholarship, totaling $40,000, for law school.
Adams' "commitment to the truth and his perseverance in the face of incredible hardship led the committee to believe he is the embodiment of an Abraham Lincoln Marovitz public interest scholar," said Andrew S. Marovitz, a Mayer, Brown LLP partner and the committee's chairman. "We can't imagine a more perfect fit for this scholarship than Jarrett Adams."
The late U.S. District Judge Abraham Lincoln Marovitz created the scholarship as a way to encourage law students to pursue careers in the public interest field. Andrew Marovitz is the great nephew of the scholarship's namesake.
Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Ann Claire Williams, a member of the CBF Marovitz scholarship committee, said her eyes teared up when she read Adams' application.
She called Adams "someone who has experienced the worst that the justice system has to offer and remained determined, focused and did not let it crush his spirit or his soul."
Recently, at Williams' invitation, Adams accompanied her to a networking event at a law firm and he spoke to high school students about his case, she said.
As for the scholarship, Adams said, "I won't have to take any loans. So when I finish (law school and take the bar exam), I can go right into public interest law."
Loyola's law school interested him because of its concentration on social justice and public interest law, he said.
"They really care about the community," he said. "I felt at home."
Michael D. Monico, a partner with Monico & Spevack, said he got to know Adams several years ago through representatives with the Illinois Education Foundation.
Adams said Monico helped him get an interview with the Federal Defender Program.
As an investigator for that office, Adams said he serves subpoenas and interviews witnesses and defendants related to their trials and sentencing hearings.
Carol A. Brook, executive director of the Federal Defender Program for the Northern District of Illinois, said that since Adams started working as an investigator, he wanted to learn everything possible about that position and the program's work.
"In the two years (here), he's become a valuable member of our team," she said.
Monico said Adams joined his family one year for Christmas dinner. He also brought Adams to a Chicago Inn of Court meeting and introduced him to other lawyers and judges.
Adams "understands every day is going to be a challenge," Monico said. "He has to work hard every day in law school and he's got to keep his focus on doing well in school. I think he will do well" in law school.
As for the type of law he plans to practice, Adams said, he wants to represent criminal defendants who can't afford to hire lawyers.
"I'm going to offer my services to those who can't always afford the best," he said.
"Nobody knows more than (Adams) does the value of a hard-working, conscientious lawyer," Monico said.