Dominique Brown, Shane Calvin, Bobby Musker, Niambi Smith, Grace Zelle
Contributors: Kristin Heinichen
Picture being forcibly confined to a 6 x 8 room encased in steel and cement block. Sent to the place where violence lives. Now imagine the desperate attempts that follow as you try to disprove the accusations that put you there in the first place. Once considered, now forgotten: so is the tale of three men who have labored to prove their innocence.
Meet Jarrett Adams, a 17-year-old boy with a bright future. Like most teenagers, he wanted to have fun with his friends. On September 5th, 1998, three boys set out for Jefferson County, Wisconsin to attend a big college party. But one night cost Adams 10 years of his life.
In 2000, Adams and two others were wrongfully convicted of sexual assault. The incident was said to have happened at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, and the all-white jury sentenced him to 28 years. When he was exonerated from the charge, he had already served one decade of his sentence.
Adams was set free with the assistance of the Wisconsin Innocence Project (WIP). This project is located at the University of Wisconsin Law School and they work to reform the criminal justice system.
After being released from prison, Adams began to work on the future he thought he might never have. He began his studies at a junior college, then transferred to Roosevelt University in downtown Chicago, Illinois. In addition to his studies, he worked full-time as an investigator with the Federal Defender Program for the Northern District of Illinois. Adams graduated from Roosevelt University with top honors and continued his education at Chicago’s Loyola University School of Law through a 2012 Chicago Bar Foundation’s Abraham Lincoln Marovitz Public Interest scholarship.
Adams, now 33, plans on using his law degree to aid defendants who are less fortunate as well as those who are wrongfully incarcerated.
“I want to be the opposite of what my lawyer was, in so many ways,” Adams told the Chicago Tribune earlier this summer.
Adams works with Antoine Day to give back and help those who aren’t heard. They have started the Life After Justice Center and their mission is to assist exonerees and parolees successfully re-enter society, all the while providing stable housing, job training and counseling.
Day is someone who seeks the development of the whole person. He holds many professional positions, but the work he holds most dear is mentoring ex-felons and assisting them with social re-entry. Day believes that personal triumph begins with reforming one’s mind. "Reform is never a bad idea," hinted Day. Especially in regards to the judiciary system that wrongfully incarcerated him.
“I challenge the law because the law can’t hide the truth,” he said. “I believe in justice. I don’t believe in unfairness.”
He was 28 when he went in and 40 when he was released. While the reasons for putting Day away were muddy, one thing became very clear to him:
“The system is so broke,” he said. “If you want out you have to fight for it...Nobody loves you like you.”
In 1990 Day was wrongfully convicted of first degree murder, attempted murder, and unlawful use of a firearm. Day had a bench trial and according to him, the presiding judge had been suspended during the time he issued the sentence. The justice system didn’t just fail Day, it punished him for 12 years. Nonetheless, he assures those who are slack-jawed over his sentence that he doesn’t live with hate.
“I’m not even mad at the people who did this to me because that’s what they’re used to doing,” Day said with a shrug.
Before he was spending time behind bars, Day could be found behind a drum set. At 28 he was was a passionate musician and business man. He was a member of a band and owned a nightclub not far from his childhood home on the West Side of Chicago.
“I made $18,000 a week. I had this club for a year and 7 months,” he said explaining that his club was shut down following Day’s arrest.
Even though his prosperous 20s were replaced with many unsettling years, he wasn’t left feeling hopeless.
“I don’t consider it a waste of time because everyday God has given me an opportunity to learn something new,” he said.
He also had the love and teaching of his mother who implored that above all else, stay humble.
“She gave me the will to do what I needed to do to come home,” he recalled. “She said ‘quitting is not allowed.’”
Giving up isn’t part of Patrick Pursley’s vocabulary either.
Twenty-one years into his prison sentence and Pursley is still fighting hard for his freedom. In 1994, Pursley was convicted of murder and sentenced to life without parole.
“It’s a fight because the truth doesn’t seem to matter when you’re sitting in prison, because they’ve already got you,” he said.
On April 2, 1993, at approximately 10 p.m., a couple was seated in a parked car when an apparent robbery led to the shooting and death of the driver. The Rockford police discovered a spent bullet in the car and later the county coroner recovered a bullet from the victim’s shoulder. A forensic scientist examined the bullets and determined them to be of 9 millimeter caliber fired from the same firearm. Two months following the incident, a call was made to Crime Stoppers and Pursley’s name was dropped in connection with the murder.
Marvin Windham, a former acquaintance of Pursley’s, was the tipster. His incriminating testimony was considered admissible evidence. However, upon cross-examination it was revealed that Windham had received a total of $2,650 in reward money for his information. Windham also had two criminal charges pending and he was a member of a gang that rivaled Pursley’s. Ultimately, Pursley was charged with murder/ intent to kill/injure and sentenced to “a natural life” at Stateville Correctional Center.
“I didn’t do this crime,” Pursley insisted.
Pursley lamented about his criminal background which landed him in jail three times prior as well as his involvement with the "gangster disciples." This, he believes, held sway over the judge and further indicted him on his latest charges.
“I wish I’d never heard the words 'gangster disciple' in my life. Once you get a record, you’re basically killing your future,” he commented earnestly. “When you’re painted a certain way, it’s very hard to take the paint off.”
His missteps are evident, this he admits. But what has always been irrefutable to Pursley is the unreliable forensics that contributed to his conviction. He insists that there’s evidence that the gun they retrieved from where he was residing doesn’t match the suspected murder weapon. And ever since his sentencing, he’s been hell-bent on proving it.
Pursley has long pursued post-conviction ballistics testing, the science of how a bullet leaves a gun, to determine his innocence.
In 2007 Pursley set a precedent in Illinois when the case, State of Illinois v. Pursley, granted ballistics testing for the first time under the post-conviction testing statute. While this was a win for other defendants petitioning for this testing, it has yet to serve Pursley as his request is still being appealed.
But waiting hasn’t made him inactive. He’s been the driving force behind the I Am Kid Culture movement, a newsletter created within the walls of Stateville Correctional Center intended to empower urban youth by illustrating the “traps of the hood.” Ultimately, Pursley desires to impart his wisdom.
“Small mistakes can lead to the wrong path. Once you get a record you’re basically killing your future,” he said. “My actions have directly affected so many of my loved ones. It’s a ripple effect, we’re all connected.”