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Once in prison, Jarrett Adams now clerks at court that gave him his freedom

Jarrett Adams is a law student on a very unusual path — his first experience with the law was as a defendant.
/ Source: TODAY

Jarrett Adams is a law student on a very unusual path — his first experience with the law was as a defendant.

When Adams was 17 years old in 1998, he visited the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater with two friends, where they were accused of sexual assault. Adams' court-appointed lawyer did not offer a defense at trial, and Adams was convicted and sentenced to 28 years in prison.

"I maintained my innocence from the beginning because I was innocent," Adams told MSNBC Chief Legal Correspondent Ari Melber.

While he was in prison, a cellmate told Adams to stop playing basketball, and to fight for his freedom and justice instead. Adams taught himself case law, and wrote to the Wisconsin Innocence Project.

"We got the letter, from Jarrett, in time to allow us to do a federal appeal," said Keith Findley, a founder of the Wisconsin Innocence Project. "We had powerful new evidence that had not been presented to his jury."

After nine years in prison in 2007, Adams' case finally reached the top federal court in the Midwest — the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals — and in a unanimous decision, the justices threw out his conviction, ruling that Adams did not have an adequate defense.

"The day they overturned my conviction, I was taken down, out of my cell, to a phone room," Adams said. "They said, 'Jarrett, you won,' and hearing that brought tears to my eyes."

Adams was free, but he was a 26-year-old man, with a life paused at 17.

"When I went to prison, there was no Google. There was no email. There was none of this stuff," Adams said. "So I had to figure out a way in which I had to catch up with the world to be able to just have a shot at life."

Adams set a lofty goal for himself — law school and public service. He earned his law degree from Loyola University in Chicago this past spring.

"Jarret has this passion for using his legal education and his talents to right wrongs in society," David Yellen, dean at Loyola University Chicago, said.

And his mission didn't stop there. Adams won a fellowship to clerk on the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, the very court that overturned his conviction.

Adams just took the bar exam and will get his results next month. He says that he wants to represent people who can't afford an attorney and lobby Congress on reforming re-entry programs.

"I said to myself, the story of Jarrett Adams won't be remembered as, you know, person wrongfully convicted, got out," Adams said. "No, the story of Jarrett Adams is going to be a person wrongfully convicted, got out, and worked each and every day 'til he gasped his last breath to change the criminal justice system for the better."