DECEMBER 23, 2021
ON OCTOBER 28, 2021, the Los Angeles Review of Books hosted a panel discussion “Redeeming Justice” — the fourth conversation in our Semipublic Intellectual Sessions, featuring Jarrett Adams and Laurie Levenson, moderated by Gil Garcetti and introduced by LARB’s executive director, Irene Yoon.
IRENE YOON: Good evening. Thank you all so much for joining us here at the Los Angeles Review of Books for our fourth Semipublic Intellectual session, “Redeeming Justice,” with Jarrett Adams, Gil Garcetti, and Laurie Levenson. I’m Irene Yoon, LARB’s executive director, and it’s my pleasure to welcome you all here tonight for this important discussion of wrongful conviction, racial injustice, and the law. As those of you who’ve been following our series this month no doubt know, we’re celebrating 10 years here at the Los Angeles Review of Books: 10 years of fostering vital conversations online, in print, and in person or over Zoom among some incredible writers and scholars like those gathered here tonight about the pressing issues and ideas of the day. We’ve been committed to this not only because we like to hear and read ourselves and others talk and write, though, of course, as an organization that cares very much about thoughtful ideas and their meaningful expression, we certainly do. But more fundamentally because we believe that it’s conversations like this that help us rigorously examine our lives and the systems and powers that govern them, that enable us to imagine better possibilities for the world that we live in, that have the potential to spark and spur on meaningful action and change. Having had the chance to meet briefly with our three guests here in preparation for this event, I’m more confident than ever in this being the case tonight. This evening’s conversation will be moderated by Gil Garcetti, who served as district attorney here in Los Angeles from 1992 to 2000 and worked as a prosecutor with the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office for 32 years. Since leaving office, Gil’s turned his attention to photography as a means of raising public awareness and pursuing social change, and has also since become an outspoken advocate for the elimination of the death penalty here in California. We’re very honored to have him guide our conversation tonight. Before I turn it over to Gil to introduce Laurie and Jarrett, I just wanted to make a couple of quick notes about the format of tonight’s discussion. The first 45 minutes or so will be a conversation among our panelists, and then we’ll transition to Q&A with you, our audience. If you have any questions that you would like to ask our panelists, please drop them in the Q&A function at the bottom of your Zoom screen, and not in the chat. We do, of course, welcome you to use the chat, as I see many of you have been to introduce yourselves and where you’re joining us from today. If you haven’t already had a chance to do so, that’s always available for you there. And lastly, closed captioning is available. You can turn it on by clicking on the CC live transcript button at the bottom of the screen. After the conversation ends, we’ll be sharing some resources for how to learn about and join in the work that our speakers are doing, and likewise drop some of those resources in the chat along the way. Without further ado, I will turn it over to you, Gil, to get us started. Thank you so much to all of our guest speakers today and to all of you for making the time to join us for what will no doubt be a really fascinating and important conversation. Thanks again.
GIL GARCETTI: Thank you, Irene, for that very friendly introduction. I think you in the audience will enjoy today’s discussion. It will be a little unusual in terms of my introduction of the participants, and perhaps even your own involvement, because I’ve asked Laurie and I’ve also asked Jarrett to be exchanging ideas. In other words, let them question one another or question me if I say something that jars in a certain way. But, Jarrett, this is, as I said, not my program. It’s ours. And so I encourage you to ask any questions. But Jarrett, you’re probably going to wind up doing most of the talking tonight, because our discussion is inspired by your story, your journey. But permit me to start with Laurie. Laurie, you are a very, very busy practitioner of the law. You have a full-time teaching position at Loyola Law School. You run the school’s Project for the Innocent, and you are constantly being asked for interviews by the media. So why did you say yes when you were asked to join us today?
LAURIE LEVENSON: Thank you. Frankly, Gil, I’m honored to be here. I’m honored to be here with you. And I am certainly honored to be here with my friend Jarrett Adams. I can’t think of anything that is more important for our criminal justice system right now — for society, forget the criminal justice system — to make sure that we take a look at what we’ve been doing wrong. Because folks, it’s not just the lawyers. And it’s not just the law. It’s actually people’s lives. And so I’ve been inspired by Jarrett. His story is so compelling. And he’s not the only one. As you mentioned, Gil, I spend day-in and day-out taking a look at these cases. I am, like you, a former prosecutor. I didn’t see it while I was in the courtroom, but I sure see it now. And I realized that’s the problem in society: that until we hear the real stories, we take for granted that everything’s going well. And it has not been going well for a long time.
GG: Indeed. Thank you for sharing that. Let me ask you the question that I think is paramount in my mind: What is your personal goal with the time that we’re going to spend here? What would you like to walk away saying we accomplished tonight?
LL: I think my goal was actually for Jarrett, as he does in his wonderful book, to help us understand how this happened, how we can prevent it, and even how we can help people who’ve been treated this way by the system. I mean, Jarrett, you’ve never gotten angry in the way that I’ve seen it. I’ve seen how painful it is. And my experience with my clients, too, is that they want to move on. But the question is, how generously can you share with us your story, so that people put as much a stop to it, so they get involved? Hey, folks, if you’re here tonight, thank you. And there’s a way for every single person to have a place in preventing further injustice, and addressing the needs of exonerees today. So that is my goal: to help people in that situation.
GG: Excellent. Jarrett, you’re going to be talking a lot, but in a succinct sentence, or two, or three, tell us what your goal is today, beyond selling your book. I don’t think that’s the most important thing you’re dealing with today. What is your goal or goals for this evening?
JARRETT ADAMS: Well, first, let me let me start by thanking you all for being a part of this event, and also the L.A. Review of Books. For me to be a part of the anniversary, I’m honored and I’m privileged. For me, I would say that I’ve been through the struggle of the wrongful conviction. And I’ve been through the journey of becoming an attorney. My next act is to continue to redeem injustice by sharing this story, and inspiring others, because we need a host of folks who think like-mindedly and want to see change in a justice system. And that change has to be both equality, diversity, and reinvigorating the sympathy and empathy to understand that — like you just said — we’re dealing with people. These aren’t just names on paper. And I think that sometimes in doing this work that is just so stressful, we can become jaded in that work and forget that we are dealing with people and not all people are the same. And even though they’re on the cases and they’re accused of similar charges, we have to start taking this thing, one by one, and redeem justice.
GG: Super, perfectly said. Well, let me share with you with, with Laurie, and with our audience, my own goals, because I do have my own goals with this. Like most of you, we’re all busy, but this is very, very important. I’m no longer practicing law, but I’m very much involved in the criminal justice system and the larger issue of racism in this country. So I hope our message today inspires you members of the audience and conveys to every member to become invested in our common goal of reforming the criminal justice system to an extent that brings us closer to true justice, and become aware and invested in maximizing the chances that people who have already served their time in custody do not return to lives of crime and face more incarceration or onerous probation or parole. Coincidentally — and I had nothing to do with this — the Los Angeles Times today, their lead editorial is headlined “What we owe former prisoners,” and it talks about the things that Jarrett is going to be able to talk about: what happens when you leave prison. Most do not leave prison exonerated. They leave because they have served their time. But now, even if they want to turn their lives around, we put bottlenecks that stop them, that disincentivize them, from becoming the citizens they hope to become. So we’ll talk about that. But I hope you who are listening and participating in this discussion today will be motivated to do something and take part of this action and get involved. Now this book brings us together this evening. It’s a factual story of injustice, and I’ve been asked to summarize it a little bit. But this is also a book that should touch you. If you haven’t read it, read it because it’ll touch you as a human being hearing the facts of this unfair and horrible odyssey. It is not simply a man who directly suffered this life-changing hell-living event. You know, this cost him 10 years of his life. It is also about the largely unaddressed issue of the injustice that affects millions of lives throughout the country. Sure, especially the lives of Black and brown men who are incarcerated and brought within the criminal justice system, but also their families and their friends. It hits them. So I’m talking about direct penal sanctions and how they affect the lives and the children of the criminally sanctioned, and then because of the practices and laws of states and counties and cities throughout our country, the direct consequence when the incarcerated are released from prison custody, laws and practices that hinder or make impossible for the formerly incarcerated to get a job or receive help when necessary to keep him or her from returning into custody. Many of you know what Jarrett’s book is all about, but let me summarize it. As a 17-year-old young man growing up in the well-known South Side of Chicago, Jarrett was someone who had never been arrested. He graduated from high school. He was spending the summer having a good time before he was going to go on to community college. He and two of his friends — also Black young men living in the south part of Chicago — were looking for parties. They’re young guys. So they found this one party on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, a couple hours’ drive from Chicago, much safer than staying on the South Side. Ultimately, they had consensual sex with a young woman, a young white woman, in her dormitory room. A few weeks later, he was arrested for the crime of what in California we would call forcible rape. He was assigned — and this is critically important — a court-appointed lawyer, and his other two friends who were also charged, one was able to hire a lawyer, and the other one had the public defender appointment. But this court-appointed lawyer whose professional performance would be an embarrassment in any state bar, quote “worked” unquote with Jarrett. As a result of his work, Jarrett was ultimately convicted by an all-white jury, and sentenced to 27 years in prison, hard time prison. But with the help of the University of Wisconsin Innocence Project, he was exonerated and he went on to become a lawyer with a mission of helping others wrongfully or unfairly convicted or sentenced. And with his book, he hopes to inspire young Black men to become lawyers. Now, you and I want to hear again from this man I’ve been talking about, Jarrett Adams. Jarrett, where should we begin? Where do you want to begin your story? Maybe with your upbringing? Your choice.
JA: Yeah, I think I’ll begin with just that, Gil, and how I was born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, much in large part by a single mother. And my mother, she raised me in a community that was my grandmother and my aunts. And, you know, they would do things that now I know as an adult were strategic to saving a young Black boy from the streets, police, and the justice system that is in the United States. They would constantly try to keep me busy, keep me out of the way. I mean, I cannot sing at all, Gil, but somehow, they found a way to put me in a church choir. So this is the type of energy that they would use to keep me out of the way. And so when I graduated high school, it was just a time of anxiousness, nervousness. All my friends were going in different directions, and, you know, I’m trying to figure out what I want to do with my life as a young Black male in this rough area in Chicago, and so we were all just getting together, having a good time. And when I was accused, I could recall moments when I would look at my mom and I would catch her looking off in the distance and the wrinkles and creases of anguish just lined her forehead. And I would say, “Mom, you know, look, we’re telling the truth, right?” And I can remember her turning around and saying to me, “Baby, you don’t get it this, this isn’t about the truth.” The history will tell you that our criminal justice system does not afford the constitutional presumption of innocence to people based off of how they look. So when going through this, I went from a kid — 17 turning 18, looking forward to the future of my life — to now I’m 18 and I’m in a maximum security prison, and I’m trying my best to figure out a legal system with just a Chicago public school, high school education.
GG: Let me jump in here with another question. What about your father? Did your father have this uniquely positive role that your mother, your grandmother, your grandfather, and your aunt had?
JA: So my father was around, I’ll just say that. He was around. But actively in the raising, and the watching over, and the making sure and checking in on — those were the Black women in my life, and the Black women in my life are no different than the Black women who have sons who are viewing us right now, where you know, you watch the son go out the door and when the phone rings, you don’t say hello, you say what’s wrong, right? Because you just don’t know. And so that was my life. Me and my father, we worked on our relationship, you know. As I came home, he was even there at the trial. And what I didn’t realize was he had an upbringing as well. And I’ll say something that I planned to theme in my next book is that the communities of color that make up the predominant numbers in these prison systems, these communities are broken. So these communities don’t hand down wealth and legacy. It’s usually handing down bills, it’s handing down, you know, the ineptness because of just the hold that is on the community of color with crime, with the — not post-traumatic stress — the persistent traumatic stress that it is to grow up in and make it out of one of these neighborhoods. And so I realized through getting a relationship with my father later on that much of how his relationship was with me, was a learned behavior from his father. And his father learned a certain behavior from his father. And that’s something that with my book, I’m desperately trying to give folks a bird’s-eye view inside these communities so you can see there are a number of ways that you can help.
GG: Fill that out a little more, because I’ve never been in the southern section of Chicago, but we’ve read about it. We all have our stereotype images of what that must be like: drug-infested, a lot of crime going on, families broken up. Now, your mother wasn’t a druggie. Your aunts were not druggies. Tell us a little more about your mother.
JA: So my mother, she worked for HUD [Housing and Urban Development]. When she first got the job, she had to work her way up. So when she first got the job, her station was all the way outside of the city by O’Hare Airport. For most folks who have never been in Chicago, the biggest airport is O’Hare and it’s not in Chicago. It’s outside of Chicago. So she would drop me off at my grandmother’s house, and my aunt and my grandmother would get me ready for school. And my mother would drop me off at like five in the morning just to make time, you know, to get to work. She and my father had split up at the time, so it was just basically her. And I’ll never forget — and I write this in the book — I can remember just how much of a toll it was taking on her, because childcare wasn’t a thing, just like it’s still a problem right now in these communities. And so I could hear her crying herself to sleep, or crying in a bathtub, and I didn’t realize as a kid just how much was on her. But as I look back: she’s up every morning, four o’clock getting ready, dropping me off at my grandmother’s house. Then she’s getting off work at six. So oftentimes, I would see my mother dropping me off in the morning, it was dark, and I wouldn’t see her again until it was dark when she was picking me up from my grandmother’s house. But she worked all of her life. My aunts worked all of their lives. And quite frankly, Gil, it goes to show ill-prepared we were to deal with this system, because we hadn’t been accused and arrested and dealt with this before, as those preconceived notions would have people outside of the community of Chicago believe.
GG: I appreciate you sharing that information with us. You know that, in the book review that I wrote for the L.A. Review of Books, I cite specific sections which just grabbed me because I think I told you that at first I was a little reluctant to even get involved in this. But then I said, “Well, send me the book.” I figured I’d take maybe up to two weeks to read it. And I read it in two days, because your voice, your words, really grabbed me. Is there a particular favorite passage that you have that is meaningful to you that you could or would want to share with us today?
JA: Yeah, there’s a story that I share in the book, and this goes to why I’m so happy just to be here and talk about the book and my journey. So when people ask me about my experience in prison, they oftentimes expect me to respond and talk about the violence or this or that. And I’ll tell you, Gil, it was two things that really just shook me to my core. Number one, I would see guys get out in the wintertime, and they would be right back in that following summer. And it was scary to me, because I said to myself, I’m desperately trying to get out of here and stay out. What would you be doing to put yourself in a situation to come back? But I learned that it was systematic. The thing that I will never forget is this. I started to befriend folks, you know, on the basketball court working out and things like that. And everyone in prison has a nickname. And I remember these three gentlemen. They were referring each other as G-Son, Old Man, and Pops. I assumed that they were just prison nicknames, right? Well, I got on a visit. And when I got on a visit one day I was visiting with my mom, and I saw these three men for the first time on a visit, and I realized, Gil, they weren’t friends. They were a grandfather, a father, and a grandson. They had three women come and visit them, and one of the women had a young girl with them, and the young girl had a Barbie doll in her hand. When she came through the door, she stretched her arms out to the guards, as if to be wanted. And they laughed and chuckled. But it terrified and it stayed with me, because it told me that coming to prison and the life of someone being in prison can be desensitized and almost become normalized. And if it becomes normalized, then that breaks the entire system itself. It makes it easier for folks to go in and come out. I will never forget how innocent this child was. But for her to know, Gil, to stretch out her hands to be wanted. I asked myself, “What are we doing with this system?”
LL: Yeah, I think you answer your question, too, Jarrett. The part of the book that really struck me was what was told to you: when you’re a black man, a young black man, don’t give police a reason. And then you highlighted the words “disposable young Black boys.” Over at our Project for the Innocent, we have a saying too: “There are no disposable people.” Everybody matters. Who can I help today? I think what I really find so powerful in this book is the image of society as the predator. We should be thinking of society as lifting us up, helping us, being there for the weakest of us, but it’s exactly the opposite that you seem to describe here.
JA: Yeah, you know, I see so much of a system and now in my practice of law where when someone is so used to being a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And that is why with the nonprofit that we’ve built, Life After Justice, the emphasis is on the mental health care in the program. Because we don’t think it’s just needed for the people who go directly through it. There should be a bridging of the gap between the mental health-care world and the criminal justice world because you have so much trauma. And Gil and Laurie, I just want you guys to know, as I continue on, I just have so much respect for your careers, at the beginning, and I am so proud to know you guys for what you’re doing now. Because some folks would have retired and went fishing or horseback riding, and you guys have retired to work, right. It’s what’s needed. It’s what’s needed in this system to be able to repair it. And I think that when we find a way to start to figure out how to humanize and offer people the mental health care that they need, we find ourselves in a better position to fix it. We cannot continue to go on with the numbers that we have. We have 2.3 million people incarcerated, but it’s almost four million when you think about people on parole and different monitoring and things like that. So when you look at our criminal justice system, we have more people incarcerated in certain states than we do in different countries like Ireland and Switzerland. It’s an issue. We can’t be the greatest nation and the greatest incarcerator at the same time.
GG: Let me, if I might, because part of our mission today is to inspire the audience to find an issue within all of these issues we’re discussing that really resonates with them and say, “Hey, this is just not right.” So I want to focus on the issue that was paramount for you and getting your exoneration, and that is the ineffective assistance of counsel. I don’t know if, Laurie, you can answer this question. I can’t. But the process in your case was there were three defendants. For one of your friends, his family was able to raise enough money and he was ultimately acquitted because they brought in evidence.
JA: The charges were dismissed.
GG: I’m sorry, yes, that’s correct. Okay. The second one had the public defender. He was convicted as you were convicted, but you had to have a court-appointed lawyer because I take it the court declared a conflict or the public defender declared a conflict that you should have your own. But who are these lawyers? Take Los Angeles County, for example.
LL: But I think we have to be careful, everybody, because I think there are some tremendously dedicated and effective public defenders. They’re overworked. There’s also the appointed lawyers, and I think in many systems, they’re the ones who phone it in. You know, they’re getting a straight rate, it’s not very much, and they just don’t make the extra effort. I actually served as an expert on cases. I got a death penalty case, Gil, where the defense lawyer was disbarred at the time he handled the case. Whatever standards we set, you should at least have somebody who’s not disbarred.
GG: Yeah, let me make it clear. I have tremendous respect for public defenders, and I tell friends who are going to be represented by public defenders that you’re not going to do better than that. The people in the Public Defender’s Office in Los Angeles County — I can’t speak for other counties — and the alternative public defender’s office are top rate lawyers who care. The appointed private lawyers, I can’t speak to that. But you, Jarrett, can share with us your experience, and frankly, I believe that your experience could be more normal in that situation than people would ever expect. But tell us about your experience.
JA: Right. I’m glad that you asked the question because not many people understand. If multiple people are accused of a crime, or if someone is accused of a crime and they’re declared indigent and the court appoints an attorney, the public defender’s office, as Laurie mentioned, is overwhelmed. So they can’t take all cases. So there’s been a list created of attorneys, private attorneys, and it varies depending on what jurisdiction you’re in. You don’t know what you’re going to get. And in this instance, I had an attorney who was ill-prepared and who lacked desire, quite frankly, in my case, and it was critical in my case. I want people to read the book. I don’t want to give away the entire book. But when you read the book, you’ll see. There was an opportunity for my appointed panelist attorney to join in the same motion that essentially led to my other co-defendant having the case dismissed once it came to light that the police withheld the statement from the student who exonerated us. So it’s one of these things where that system in itself is broken. When you have civil cases, you get the best of the best attorneys, right? Because there’s a monetary value there. But people can see automatically and instantly, when it comes to criminal defense, that there’s no money, there’s no resources, there are very few people who are really interested in doing the work because of that, and it directly impacts the system. And who it directly impacts is people of color, usually, because the people of color are usually ones who can’t afford attorneys. 80 percent of people accused of crimes in the United States rely on public defense. That number alone should tell you that that in itself deserves attention and resources. This is about getting it right, and if this is about getting it right, then why can’t the field be level?
LL: And Gil, I want to jump in on something terribly important. It’s not just that there are lawyers who don’t care, don’t do their job, are not dedicated, and, frankly, look at their clients as sort of the enemy in some ways. But by the time you’re in the system and trying to overturn your conviction on a habeas, you don’t have a lawyer. You’re writing from prison with a pencil or a crayon and hoping. And God bless the Innocence Project that you got Jarrett because they brought it. But the number of cases, folks, we have six to eight hundred people writing to us that we have to screen through, and they don’t have lawyers. They’re trying to do it on their own, and they’ve been beaten down as hard as you can beat someone down.
GG: Yeah. And I can testify that when you read the book, you will see the efforts of knocking Jarrett down and how many times he went outside the system to try and get help, and it was always a no. But it didn’t stop him. I mean, Jarrett is an individual of particular tenacity, and an ability to say, “I’ve got to do this. It’s not just for me, it’s for my mom and others.” So what this man did was tremendous. You were able finally to succeed and get the exoneration because of your incompetence of counsel. Correct?
GG: So I want to put that out there. The other issue that I had with your description were the judges who heard your case. The first judge who heard your case — in essence, what we’d call in Los Angeles a preliminary hearing — said he didn’t see it as third degree, as second degree, as first degree, or really as an offense. Well, that judge, in my opinion, should have just dismissed the case. But instead he said, “Well, alright, we’ll send it upstairs for a trial.” But that’s not what the judge is supposed to do. And then the thing that really got me that was so unfair: after you had been convicted, you had been told that you were going to receive 20 years in prison. And your co-defendant, who was your friend, was sentenced first, and he got his 20 years. But then the judge turned to you and said, you know, you haven’t expressed any remorse, you haven’t apologized, so I’m going to give you another seven years. 27 years. You’d never been arrested. You had a clean record. I mean, you were 17 years old. To me, that’s part of the justice system are the judges. If you read today, from the Washington Post, what’s going on in the Arbery case in Georgia, what that judge is doing there in terms of dismissing some jurors and not others. Where is justice in this? I almost reached out to that judge to tell him about your case. I don’t know, Jarrett, if there’s anything for you to say. But I wanted to share my outrage.
JA: Here’s what I’ll say, Gil. To understand the judge who gave me the additional eight years is to understand the system, again, and where judges come from. The bench is made up predominantly of former prosecutors, and not all prosecutors are Laurie Levenson and Gil Garcetti. So you look at this, and you say, here it is again, another glaring focus on why we need diversity and equality throughout the legal system all the way from the law schools, to the lawyers, to the prosecutors to the judges, because they are important. And in this situation, to be exact about it: I took the opportunity to apologize to my mother, to my family, to everyone in the courtroom. And I said I’m sorry, because at the end of the day, I snuck to a party. I knew I shouldn’t have been up in the state of Wisconsin. So I felt so guilty as a result of that. But what I told the court was that I couldn’t apologize for a false accusation of rape. And it was for that that the judge told me that I wasn’t remorseful, and I didn’t know, Gil, that not being remorseful was a statute in the code books and that you can get more time for that. But that’s what happened. And then, interestingly enough, when it came out that the police withheld the statement that ultimately exonerated us, this same judge, in overturning my conviction said, “It is obvious that this court did not have all the facts in front of it. As a result, exonerated, record expunged.” But it was just what you said, Gil. Why was I not given that presumption of innocence from the very beginning? And that is because the historical depiction of young Black males in this country is to be not believed, and if they are accused of something, it’s more than likely that they did it or they did something. And that is something that we only break by highlighting authors, by highlighting people doing positive stuff. So it’s an all-hands-on-deck approach: judges, clerks, prosecutors, lawyers, everyone has to turn their attention to fixing this thing, just like we turned our attention to the pandemic, because our criminal justice system is too a pandemic right now.
GG: One of the great things that I read about in the book was your own experience as a law librarian in prison, and you wound up representing people and you began to learn about the law. In fact, your nickname was Little Johnnie Cochran. Man, that was cool. You had credibility right there in doing it. But the whole system is such that you were successful, but only successful even though you were doing all the writing. Even though you had one lawyer who helped you a good amount, you were going to be arguing the case in front of the federal court. And then, luckily, at the last minute, the University of Wisconsin Innocent Project called you and said, “Hey, this is something. Maybe we can help you.” Tell us about that experience and how long and hard it was for you to get there.
JA: It goes to what Laurie had mentioned earlier. At a certain point in time, you are on your own. You have no counsel appointed to you at all, and it’s oftentimes at the last moment when relief can be offered, that you’re on your own. So I exhausted my state appeals that were pretty much rubber-stamped throughout. They weren’t addressing the police withholding of the statement. They were just making it seem like it was a strategic decision not to call witnesses and so on and so on. So what I started to do was, I started to draft my own habeas petition, because AEDPA was ticking. A lot of people aren’t aware of AEDPA, but AEDPA is the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. Most people will say, okay, with a name like that, how does that have anything to do with habeas? Well, that’s the trick. There are bills that are passed with bills under them, and if you aren’t paying attention, this is how bad legislation gets passed. So AEDPA says that once you exhaust your state court remedies, you only have 12 months to bring a habeas petition, which would possibly get you relief. My mom didn’t have any money. I was able to get ahold of a guy named Robert Henak, who was a great appellate attorney in Wisconsin, and he was making a name for himself. And I wrote him a letter. Much of what I was doing in prison was just writing, writing, writing constantly. And he responded, and he agreed to help edit my habeas because even though I couldn’t afford him. When I sent this thing off, I swear I thought it was the best thing ever written. When I got it back, the only thing that wasn’t crossed out was my name. But that that goes to show you just how daunting of a task it is for someone who doesn’t have an attorney. The Innocence Project came and literally, they took my case and they filed it when I had days left. I had days left. And they filed it. And I just thank God that I was able to get them. I wrote as much as I could to everyone. I literally wrote everyone, and they responded. And like Laurie said, the problem with that is this: I am under no magical belief that I am the only Jarrett Adams, right? There are many people who need help who just can’t get the help because the resources and the bodies and manpower just aren’t there.
GG: Now, let me add this one other fact to this. The professor who eventually took this over, he is not the one that found this. It was one of the students who came across it, read this, and then he convinced the professor to look at it.
LL: And Gil that is not unusual. I think all the professors out there should have some humility. I got started in this business because I’ve had summer interns, from college and high school, any young person come to me and say, “Professor, I think this person’s innocent.” This was somebody who was in their first year of college. And the project got started, as Jarrett knows, because I had four students, and I’m giving them the credit, who showed up in my office and said, “Can we do something that matters?” And in my mind, this really mattered. So to this day, most of the screening of cases are by students, and that’s too bad, because they have a limited knowledge, but they do have a lot of heart. And in the end, that’s what this work takes: a lot of common sense, openness, and heart.
GG: It was fabulous that they were doing it. Congratulations to the students, congratulations to the professor for doing it. Because but for them, Laurie and I would not be talking with you today.
JA: That is most certainly the case. There is no doubt the Wisconsin Innocence Project and Keith Findley, I owe them a lot. After graduating law school, I clerked for two federal judges, and it was so overwhelming the number of pro se petitions and litigants. How can we be surprised when we have 2.3 million people incarcerated?
LL: Here’s the scary thing. Jarrett had a very long sentence. But our docket is nearly full with people who have life sentences, and so I’m so worried. We have people who have spent 30, 40 years. It doesn’t mean that Jarrett losing 10 years of his life is okay. It’s not okay. What we need to do is actually invest as a society in preventing this and having a response to it. And Jarrett hit on something we haven’t talked that much about, which is services for people who get out. Imagine the type of traumatic transition. Jarrett’s extraordinary because look at him now: suit, tie, successful lawyer, and somebody who gives back tremendously to his society. But not everybody is able to do that, and it’s easy for them to get lost. I’m gonna take a shot at prosecutor offices who do what I consider unconscionable, which is they don’t dismiss cases because they’re afraid of getting sued. They don’t dismiss cases because they don’t want to help people and admit that they did something wrong. I wonder what we could do to actually say to prosecutors, you can be okay and still recognize the injustice and help people get their lives back on track.
GG: Certainly, that’s what I think our current district attorney in Los Angeles is trying to do.
LL: And there’s a lot of pushback, as you well know.
GG: Tremendous pushback.
JA: It’s amazing. The most difficult thing to do oftentimes is the right thing. It’s amazing that people believe that equality means their extinction. That’s the part that we wrestle with so much. The storytelling is important, because through the testimony of people’s stories and journeys, that’s how you’re able to humanize what is going on right now with this system. There’s most certainly the need for prosecuting, the need for getting perpetrators of crimes. But we have allowed ourselves to let this thing get out of control. And it’s up to us to fix it. I read so much and so many different things and how I live my life now is this: How do I get up each and every day and live a life that if my kid picked up that book, he would be proud of what he read? And that’s what I’m encouraging folks who are looking in right now and watching this. There are things that we can do, but we have to start in our own jurisdictions. If your descendant picks up your book, are they going to be proud of what they read?
GG: Good for you. I don’t think book reviewers do this very often, inviting the author of a book to come and meet with them. But since I don’t do this very often, I invited you. And I thought we might meet beforehand for a half hour, 45 minutes. We met together for about two hours. it was great. I was very impressed. But there were two things that you said in particular that I didn’t see in the book that were important. One was the role of mental counseling that you strongly resisted for a number of years, and then you accepted it. Would you talk about that a little bit and share it with the audience?
JA: Yeah, I will. And it goes to driving home the point that Laurie mentioned about the family structure that I had when I came home. There are men and women who go to prison, and by the time they get out, they’re the only leaf left on their family tree. I had a family who was strong, because my grandmother, who was the matriarch, and my grandfather, that’s how they were raised, for everybody to raise everyone together. That is not the case for everyone. When I came home, I was trying to catch up, Gil, for time that you couldn’t catch up for. I came home 26 turning 27 years old. When I came home, my friends, they’re not turning up now. They’re turning down beds, they’re tucking their kids in, they’re getting up for work in the morning. And I just felt like I had lost so much. I remember — and this was this was at the breaking point where my family called their own intervention to encourage me to go and get mental health care — I remember sitting and going through a photo album, and many people during the holidays, you drink eggnog, you sit around a tree, you go through photos, and I’m going through this photo album, and I’m looking at my evolution. I’m a kid — a cute kid, by the way. I’m graduating eighth grade. Prom picture, high school graduation. I don’t have another picture in the photo album for the next 10 years. Meanwhile, my niece was born. My nephew was born. My nephew was actually one when I was incarcerated, and when I met them, they didn’t know whether to hug me or shake my hand because they didn’t know me. And that’s why it was important to write the book from the perspective of the damage that it takes on the entire community and families involved.
GG: Super. Before we start taking questions, because we’ve been going for almost an hour, I want you and I want you too, Laurie, to tell about your respective nonprofits that you’re focusing on and that might interest the support of any of our listeners. So, Laurie, why don’t you go first?
LL: So we’ve got Loyola’s Project for the Innocent. As I mentioned, this is run out of the law school. We represent wrongfully convicted people, and we have a huge docket. And if people are wondering whether there are ways for them to get involved, I’m going to encourage you to email me. Irene’s going to put it into the chat. Just email me. Even if you’re not a lawyer, there are ways to help. Jarrett has an organization as well as our first exoneree whose name is Obie Anthony. He spent 17 years in prison, and he started something when he got out. People often ask what happens to people when they get out — do they get a lot of money? And you know what, they don’t get a lot of money, but they should get a lot of money. And they often invest in helping other exonerees. So there’s something called Exonerated Nation that provides the services we’ve been talking about: mental health services, getting a job, and more. If you think that’s something you would like to help with, reach out and do it. There are so many ways people can help.
JA: So my organization is called Life After Justice. And basically what we do is this: we operate on three buckets, so to speak. The first is exactly what Laurie was talking about in reintegration. It is so difficult to get out and put yourself back together by yourself, and nor should someone have to do that. But in many cases, that’s just what happens. Compensation laws are ridiculously flawed throughout the country, including California, which just implemented a change to its PC 4900, but it still needs more work in how it’s being delivered. What we do is we encourage and empower folks on release to go off and be the leaders of change in this community. And we also focus heavily on the mental health aspect of this, because this is a car crash. The criminal justice system, when a person is involved with it, it is a car crash, and people come out of it with different ailments. And those people should be given and afforded that mental health that they need to help to reintegrate back into society. The last and most important and proud, proud, proud bucket is we take actual cases of innocence that have the opportunity upon litigation to create precedent. That means this: we are excited when folks are exonerated. We are thrilled to see them come home. But we need to take that momentum to create legislation that prevents the things that we know are the hallmarks of people being wrongfully convicted. You shouldn’t be faced with a criminal justice system where your guilt or innocence hinges on how much you can afford. That’s not justice. That’s justice for sale. If people are looking to get involved, we need people. We need resources. We need funding, and there aren’t enough organizations that have the help to do this. So picking different organizations to donate to every year is encouraged. It’s encouraged because we need all hands on deck.
GG: Excellent. I have one more question for Jarrett about his wife, but I’m going to hold that until the end. So Irene I’m having difficulty finding the questions here.
IY: So the questions are in the Q&A function. We have one so far from Suzanne Ray, who is wondering, and I guess this dovetails nicely with what you were both already sharing, Jarrett and Laurie. What can those of us watching do as individuals?
LL: Actually talking to people, making sure your neighbor knows. Show up for jury service, folks. If you’re the type of person who’s actually in this program, that’s the type of person we would want actually sitting on cases. So that when you see somebody sitting there as a defendant, you don’t say, “Oh, the usual suspect.” Think about how many things can be going wrong, that when you critically analyze what kind of evidence is be presented, whether that lawyer’s doing their job. Jurors are integral. Otherwise, we’re just abandoning the system, and it’s really hard to undo a conviction once it happens.
GG: Let me throw out one idea that people could do. That is connect to Jarrett to another audience. You can do that in any way that you think. If you belong to a book group, if you belong to a church, a temple, or mosque, whatever. Because I think people need to hear this voice. And he is only one of the examples of the injustice that’s going on throughout the United States. Look, we have some bad people in prisons, who committed their crimes and deserve to be in prison. But there are too many others that are just like Jarrett who should never have been in prison in the first place. And don’t think just of Jarrett. He’s a particularly powerful, strong, emotionally-set individual. But think of his family, what they went through every day.
LL: And Gil, you know what, you mentioned earlier about reforms. There’s kind of an ugly pushback against reforms that I’m reading about. When you have a reformist prosecutor, all of a sudden that’s a bad word. It’s not. And it’s not simply because you’re, quote, “giving a break” to somebody who frankly shouldn’t be there. I also explained that a key reason to make sure that you don’t wrongfully convict people is that the real killer is still out there, the real attacker might still be out there. Because you’re allowing in cases like Jarrett people to make outrageously false accusations, and continuing a type of discrimination that has just crippled our society. So one of the reasons to really embrace this work and embrace reforms is so that things will get better. And finally, you can appeal to people’s pocketbooks. It’s insane the number of people we’ve had sitting in prison. It’s insane to take young men on the cusp of their adulthood and say, “Okay, we’re just going to make you disposable.” Eventually people do get out, and what are they going to do when they get out and they don’t have the support system?
JA: And I’ll tell you something, Gil, to answer the question, listen: what people can do is this. I want people to think about something. Our communities right now are feeding the criminal justice system it’s babies, and in turn, the criminal justice system is feeding the community 40-year-old men and women — increasingly women now — who are ill-prepared to reintegrate back into society. And I think that the fix for the criminal justice system starts with empowering those who are the closest to it, because those who are the closest to it usually know the solutions, and that is the community. For example, think about something that you use each and every day in your home. Think about if it breaks. Well, you know how to fix it. Now it comes down to, do you have the resources, or do you have the tape, glue, or whatever it is? We have to start to appoint and anoint people from directly impacted communities to figure out how do we fix and provide solutions for the criminal justice system that disproportionately affects those certain communities, which are the communities that I come from.
LL: Gil, I just saw some great questions and I know that I have to pop off actually to do another program. So if I can just answer a couple of the questions that caught my eye. Lindsey Wright wrote, “What about the school system and the school-to-prison pipeline?” Lindsay, you hit it on the nose. To the extent that we are failing our kids or criminalizing our kids, that is where the problems start. You take kids and give them hope, or you take kids, and as Jarrett pointed out, that you’re going to have a grandfather, a father, and the grandson in the same prison system? Now, what does that take? It actually takes a community that’s willing to pay the taxes and care. And so if you don’t feel like you can get involved in the work we do, every school could use people’s help as well. And the only other question I want to mention is the one by Ben about the role of policing. Yeah, policing is really important. If you’re here in Los Angeles, you know that we have two different types of police. We’ve got our police chief Moore, who’s actually trying to make reforms. And then we have our sheriff who is trying to go back 30 years. And all of that is because of the politics. Gil, you’ve been in this world. How do you take the politics out of the criminal justice system?
JA: Great question.
GG: My focus is on what I believe is the most powerful political force in the United States: police unions. They can sway the opinions of so many at every level, from the federal level, to the governor’s office, to state legislators, to your local leaders, the board of supervisors, and state of California, your city council, your mayors. There are too many cities who really have compromised away the rights of citizens in favor of the police. Because everyone thinks, “Well, you never want a police union to not endorse you.” They are powerful. They were able to water down some of the police reforms that were made into law. And thank goodness they were made in the law, but they have to be called out. And that means that you have to know what your city council, your board of supervisors, your governor, your legislators are doing in terms of laws that affect unions. The unions are great to a point. But when they want to really protect those in their midst who deserve no protection from the true justice system, then they’ve crossed the line. So we have to really focus there. And it’s just a very important thing. And I’m glad Ben asked that question, and Lindsay your question.
LL: The last one, and really it’s my last point. I apologize to everybody that I got kind of double booked. It’s the about prosecutors. You know what, I’m not anti-prosecutors. Some of my best friends and my daughter are prosecutors. But there are different types of prosecutors.
JA: There are.
LL: They have enormous discretion. By some statistics, folks, only two percent of all criminal cases are actually charged, which means that somewhere along the way police and mainly prosecutors and young prosecutors are making these calls. And they don’t have the life experience. They don’t have the discretion. And they don’t, you know, get the positive feedback when they make the call to say don’t bring the case, or dismiss the case. And so I think what we actually have to focus on is training our prosecutors.
GG: Well, you raise a good point. I was at UCLA law school, and I wanted to be a public defender. And then a friend of mine, Harland Braun, he shocked me. I had been working on a presidential campaign, and he joined the DA’s office. And I called him and said, “Harlan, what are you doing? You’re joining the enemy?” And he said, “Gil, why don’t you come and spend the day with me.” And so I went to Santa Monica, where he was assigned, and I realized very quickly why very bright Harlan Braun is so bright. He saw it immediately. The seat of power in the criminal justice system mainly resides in the DA’s office. They make the decisions on so many aspects of the case: whether to file a case, add additional investigation, lesser charges, more charges, whatever it might be, do we take this plea bargain, will you accept this, whatever it might be. Because we give the judge cover, too. Even if the judge maybe believes her but he or she knows it might be criticized for a more lenient sentence, well the DA asked for this. So that’s why I joined the DA’s office. But the issue is the people that you hire there, because in Los Angeles County, unlike most DA’s offices in the country, they are civil service offices. So once they get civil service protection, forget about firing them unless they commit a felony. So my job as DA when I would bring them in, they’d go through three weeks of training, and then I had up to a three hour meeting with them alone, me with them. And the last message I left with them was that our job is to seek justice and that does not mean a conviction or the heaviest sentence in every case. Our job too is to dismiss cases, to find that there are irregularities. That is justice, and when you as an avid trial lawyer — and you’ve been there, Laurie — you’re in the courtroom, and you’re going strong, and the competitive juices are going in there, and the defense lawyer is attacking you, the judge is banging you over the head, maybe you don’t have much respect for the judge and his or her rulings, whatever it is, you have to still be able to take that step back and say, “What is justice in this case?”
LL: And what you need to do is say that justice is what we learn from people who are affected when we make the mistakes. And that’s Jarrett. So I want to thank Jarrett. And even though he didn’t plug it: holiday gifts, folks, important gifts. I make my students get the book. And I want to thank everybody. I’ve left my email in the chat. And God bless you all for coming. In the bottom line, it means that we can make a difference.
GG: I appreciate it very much. Thank you for joining us, Laurie. Jarrett, I want you to talk about your wife and the role that she has in your life.
JA: Yeah, I mean, she’s an important figure in my life. I met her when I was just getting ready to start law school.
GG: Was she already a lawyer?
JA: She was already an attorney when I met her. And so I had a date with her under the guise that it was a work lunch meeting. She’s an amazing human being, and she is so supportive. And when I was first starting to court her, I was trying to get to know her and understand her, and I remember meeting her folks at an event and I got to know them which helped me get to know and understand my wife. My wife went to law school because she wanted to be a part of the juvenile justice system, which is really an important part of us getting to criminal reform. And she realized that in order to be able to effect change, you have to have resources to be able to do it. So she got into a career where she was able to divert resources and programs to underserved communities by working at a big firm. When I met her, I was so impressed. She was like, “Yeah, I don’t think I should date anyone in their first year of law school.” And I was like, “Well, look, I’ll keep up with you.” And also I’ll say this. I just want people to think about the numbers of African American men who are incarcerated. We’re talking about 700-plus thousand men. You know who that directly affects? Black women. That directly affects Black women. It affects the dating pool. Maybe your husband is locked up, or maybe the guy that will tell your future husband, “Don’t be a fool, you better get that girl,” is locked up, right? But it directly impacts everyone, every fabric. I ran into someone who was a wonderful human being who had had experiences with her brother in incarceration. And so she had taken what she learned from her community and how she was raised in Detroit, and she took that to go get a law degree to help other people. And it was the perfect match. Look, God doesn’t make mistakes. That’s the best way I can explain it, because I had not planned on settling down and getting married so fast. But I found the right one, Gil.
GG: Good for you! I’m going to finish with a question from Gabriel Milner, but before I ask that, I want to share a little story with you. I don’t think I shared this with you when we met. When I was the District Attorney, I was out recruiting, I was going to the best law schools around the country, trying to recruit them in with a special focus on ethnic minorities, gays, openly gay, lesbian individuals to join the office. I was at USC — a fine, fine law school — even though they were our competitor at UCLA. And it was all the first-year students together and we got into a really good exchange, and finally, I said that I was really proud that USC has so many minority students here, minority in terms of the ethnic mix that we have here. I said that there are a significant number of African American women. And then I asked the question, “Where are the men?” And one woman jumped up and, pointing her finger at me, said, “You know where they are. You put them in prison.” Wow. But that’s what happened. And it went to your point, Jarrett, about if these guys are in prison, they can’t lead their lives, they can’t get married, they can’t be the fathers they should be. You want out of prison, but there are people who should never have been in prison in the first place. So here’s Gabriel’s question, and it’s addressed really to you, but I’ll add something too: “I’m wondering what kinds of reforms you would also like to see for someone’s life after prison.”
JA: What I would like to see is this. First of all, there should be therapy, mental health care immediately. Immediately. Look, prison isn’t made or designed to reform anyone. You have men and women increasingly being warehoused in prisons, and where are prisons located? Just think about this for a second, Gil. Prisons are usually located in a tip of nowhere, around the corner from anywhere, right. It’s away from the cities which make up the population really of the people in prison. So imagine housing someone for a decade in animal-like conditions, isolated, you know, like we wouldn’t even do to animals, and then releasing them and telling them now you go be human. It doesn’t work. And so when I think about the reforms that are necessary, I think about this. And I’ll close with this, and I want people to walk away thinking about this. 60 percent and higher of people who are incarcerated have been incarcerated before, but they’ve returned to prison. They’ve returned to prison at an alarming rate, two to three years after. Think about this. Imagine if this was a car company, and imagine if a car came off the production line, and every two to three years 60 percent of the cars came back because they failed, something was wrong with them. We would have a national debate in Congress about that car company getting it right, or shutting it down. So tell me, Gil, are the human lives, are the 700-thousand-plus Black men, are they not worthy of this congressional stoppage or fixing of our system? Because I beg that they are.
GG: Indeed. I missed a question, and I don’t want to drop it. And it’s a good question. It’s from an anonymous attendee, but they said, “I can often feel so overwhelmed when confronted by many problems and broken places in the legal system to think about how or where to respond. How do you decide where to go and focus your energies? Do you see fixing the system as a whole or is it piece by piece?” My answer to that is that it’s huge. It’s a huge issue. But I would focus myself at least on one thing, and maybe two things. The one thing is look at the issue of who are the lawyers who are on call to step in as, for example, in Jarrett’s case. What qualifications do they have, and does the court need some attention focused on that, that they really do have the right kind of people? The second thing goes to the very end, and that is after someone is out of prison. We heard about the nonprofits that work. Help there, because most men, the vast, vast majority of men who have committed crimes, and they will admit they committed the crimes, and could even be violent crimes, by the time they’re in their late 20s or early 30s, that’s over. It’s done. And it’s documented. They’re safe again, but they need help. They need real help to succeed once they’re out of prison, because they’ve probably been in prison for good amount of time. So work to help them. Go through an organization that focuses on those who’ve been recently freed, and see what you can do there. Would you like to add something, Jarrett, to that?
JA: I would. And that was a great question. And it can be overwhelming, right? I’ll use a quote from Thurgood Marshall, who I just admire so much and the body of work he put together. “You do what you think is right and let the law catch up.” And we know when things aren’t right, and if you want a bird’s-eye view of something that isn’t right, or something that needs work, go down to your local criminal courthouse and sit there on a Monday and just observe. Take notes. Take people with you. Because that will show you so much of what’s needed. When you start to hear the different stories, when you start to see what’s going on in the system. Take one thing, because so much of it is too much to be overwhelming. Take one thing, maybe that’s tutoring and being a mentor to a kid in these directly impacted communities to encourage them to become a part of the law. Maybe that’s you becoming a mentor to a kid whose father or mother is incarcerated. We figured out one of the toughest things that this entire world has ever faced in my generation, which was the pandemic. If we can figure that out, we most certainly can figure this system out.
GG: Excellent. Let me add one thing to that. If any of our students are still with us, get your professor or teacher to take you to a courtroom, and then be sure to ask permission for you to engage the judge. And then be prepared to ask the judge some tough questions. What’s your own background? Who are the jurors? Who’s the public defender? Who’s an alternate public defender? Well, what about these others? Are there other lawyers that you can appoint, who get paid? How much do they get paid? You’ll learn something right there, because they don’t get paid much. And sometimes you truly get what you pay for. So thank you so much. Would you like to give any closing comment, Jarrett?
JA: I want to encourage people to go pick up the book. Every Black mother with a Black son should have this book. This book is a conversation starter. It is a tool to use to spark conversation, because we can no longer remain silent and watch the carnage of this criminal justice system eat people and spit them back out. And I just want to thank everyone for tuning in tonight.
GG: I will leave you with this fact. Please remember this. I learned this from a federal Secretary of Education. He said over 70 percent of all the people in prisons throughout our country are school dropouts. Keep them in school, you will be safer, the country will be safer, and this person who might otherwise have returned to prison or be in prison for the first time, will be a productive citizen, father and husband. Thank you very much all for joining us. I hope it was worth your time. I think it was. It was good. Thank you very much everyone.
JA: Bye everyone. Take care.
IY: Thank you all so much. Thank you, Jarrett. Thank you, Gil, and Laurie who I know had to hop off. We really appreciate you taking the time to share your perspectives and insight and all of these incredible resources, which we will also be working on compiling and sending out by email along with the recording of this to the folks who couldn’t make it live tonight. And thank you to all of you in our audience who joined us this evening and for the incredible questions that you posed, and for just engaging in this really important and difficult set of problems. We’re really, really thankful to have all of you here with us tonight. Just a couple of quick reminders. We’re going be wrapping up this conversational series next week with one session, “Under Review,” which will be hosted by our editor-in-chief Boris Dralyuk, in thinking about the state of cultural and book criticism, why and wherefore we do it. And that will be a conversation with Aaron Bady, Jane Hu, Christian Lorentzen, Julian Lucas, Ismail Muhammad, and Boris. We hope you can join us next Thursday for that. And then we’ll be wrapping up with our final satellite event the following day, which is thinking through lots of really interesting and troubling questions about the future of gene editing and what comes after CRISPR with a number of noted experts in that field as well. We’ll be pulling up on these slides some resources that we mentioned: where you can find Jarrett’s book and learn more about the work that he’s doing and that Laurie’s doing with the Project for the Innocent at Loyola. We’ll also be sure to include some of these other links and resources that Gil and Laurie and Jarrett shared with us tonight. We hope to have everyone here be engaged and to see you all again next time. So thank you so much again for joining us this evening, and we will talk to you all soon. Thanks again.