His Clients Were Acquitted of Murder. Why Did They Get Life Sentences?
No other case gets to Jarrett Adams as much as this one in Virginia does.
PART I: The Writ
n the end, Jarrett and Joi Adams decide to confront the attorney general in person. They buy tickets to his fundraiser—they figure it’s their best chance to speak with the man. The car they’ve requested pulls up to the Airbnb they’re renting this week in August in Richmond, Virginia, and the driver sets the address on his phone for McLean, some two hours away. Jarrett and Joi settle in and talk about the case.
Jarrett Adams is a compact man, with a broad chest and rounded shoulders. In five years practicing law, he’s helped get three clients released. Four, if you count the client whose sentence President Barack Obama commuted in 2013 while Adams worked in the Federal Defender Program in Chicago. No case gets to him as this one in Virginia does, though. He refers to it by its location: Waverly. It involves two men acquitted of murder in 2001 but nevertheless sentenced to life in prison, as if they had done it. How this verdict and its sentence are possible will take longer than the ride to McLean to explain: The case spans decades and state and federal courts. Its legal precedent has been debated by the U.S. Supreme Court, and a bill promising the abolition of that same precedent appears in legislation before Congress now.
But Adams believes he’s found what previous teams of lawyers could not: new evidence.
That’s why the Adamses are going to the fundraiser in McLean, to confront Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring and push him to support the petition for a writ of actual innocence that Jarrett has filed. If Herring supports the petition, Jarrett believes, his clients will have a good shot at getting out of prison. Without Herring’s support—well, Jarrett doesn’t like to dwell on that. It could mean that the men he is representing, Terence Richardson and Ferrone Claiborne, will remain behind bars for the rest of their lives.
In McLean, the car parks in front of the ranch-style home of a state Democratic operative. (I’ve bought a ticket to the fundraiser too, so I can watch Jarrett and Joi interact with the attorney general.)
After an hour of mingling with the other guests in the backyard, Jarrett whispers to Joi that she should introduce herself to the AG. Joi nods and waits for an opening in Herring’s half circle. “Joi Adams,” she says, and Herring smiles.
Joi says she and her husband, Jarrett, are here on behalf of two imprisoned clients Jarrett represents: Terence Richardson and Ferrone Claiborne. Herring’s smile drops when he hears this; Joi takes a step away and fakes a sneeze to suppress a rising giggle.
Then Joi calmly tells Herring that Jarrett has worked on Waverly for a long time. She says she knows that Herring’s upcoming race in November is important—he’s a Democrat trying to win reelection to a law-and-order post in a southern state. Keeping him in office is critical, Joi tells him, especially with the issues she and Jarrett fight for.
He relaxes a bit.
Jarrett slides in next to Joi, and in a lull in the conversation, asks for a moment of Herring’s time.
Listen, Jarrett tells Herring, when they’re out of earshot. This isn’t fluff. We want you to win this race. But at the same time, there’s no greater pain than listening to Terence and Ferrone’s families cry for their boys. I thought it was important to drive myself and my wife out here, to show you I’m not just some piece of paper. I’m a heartbeat.
Jarrett says his clients are heartbeats, too. He’s just trying to get justice.
We’re getting there, Herring says.
Jarrett shakes Herring’s hand. Moments later, the Adamses are back in the car, driving away, and talking about the case that ultimately led them to this one: Jarrett’s own.
PART II: Wisconsin
Jarrett Adams was 17 when it happened. He and two friends, Dimitri Henley and Rovaughn Hill, drove from Chicago in Hill’s car to a party they’d heard about at the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater.
Adams and Henley and Hill were always heading to some party that summer, the summer of ’98, the last bright-lit days before college or the Rest of Their Lives. Adams had no big plans for the rest of his. Maybe he’d work construction. Or maybe, he told his friends, he would actually enjoy the courses at the community college where he’d already registered. Get his associate’s degree. Adams worked two jobs that summer: bagging groceries at the Shop ’n Save and selling cologne. Hill and Henley sold cologne through the same temp agency, and when the three of them weren’t spritzing passersby on the streets of Chicago, they talked about which party to hit up next.
The guys got to campus. Found the party: music blaring from dorm windows, college kids huddled nearby. Whitewater then (as now) was an overwhelmingly white school. Adams saw just one other Black guy that night. But the white students were friendly. The party spread across the rooms and hallways and floors of a dormitory.
Adams would later write about that night in his memoir, Redeeming Justice. (Portions of this story are drawn from the narrative relayed there.) Guys offered their joints, and Adams took a big hit. He watched other kids play beer pong or drink spiked punch from red plastic cups. Fairly high, he settled in the dorm room of a student, Shawn DeMain. Adams and DeMain played NBA Jam on DeMain’s Sega Genesis while Hill and Henley watched. Two white women, freshmen at the university, came into the room and started flirting with the men. One of the women pulled on a straw that Henley had in his mouth. One sat on Henley’s lap, Adams says. A few moments later, the women said the men should go to their room with them, and Henley and Hill went. Adams stayed behind; he wanted to beat DeMain in one last game of NBA Jam. After he did, Adams asked where his friends had gone. DeMain said the women’s room was two floors up.
When Adams got there and opened the door, his eyes had to adjust to the low light. Henley and Hill were with one of the women, the three of them in various states of undress. Adams walked into the room and closed the door behind him. Each of the young men, Adams wrote in his memoir, had sex with the woman that night.
At some point when they were all in the room, the door burst open: the woman’s roommate. “You’re having sex on my bed?” the roommate said, according to Adams. “That’s my bed. You’re a slut.”
The roommate stormed out, rushed to a nearby room, and slammed the door behind her. The woman, who did not respond to requests to comment for this article, ran after her angry roommate. Hill, Henley, and Adams stayed put. Adams says they heard the woman knock on the nearby door and try to get her roommate to talk to her: “Are you mad at me? Don’t be mad at me …”
The woman then rejoined the three guys in her room. “If someone says anything, act like nothing happened, okay?” Adams remembers her saying.
Eventually, Adams says, he suggested that they all head back downstairs.
They smoked and talked and laughed outside the dormitory for perhaps a half hour, Adams says. At one point he glanced up and saw Shawn DeMain outside too. Then the woman left. Adams didn’t see her again that night.
A month later, Hill and Henley and Adams were arrested for rape and extradited to Wisconsin.
Adams was granted a court-appointed lawyer, John Fiske, who Adams says spoke with him just twice in 10 months. Adams pleaded not guilty. (When reached by The Atlantic, Fiske declined to comment.) The jury in remote Wisconsin, Adams says, was all white.
John Fiske and Dimitri Henley’s lawyer were court-appointed, but Rovaughn Hill’s was not. Hill’s lawyer, Jerry Boyle, was then one of Wisconsin’s top criminal-defense attorneys. Boyle was in his 60s when the case went to trial, a white man with gray hair in a pressed suit who moved with purpose and seemed to already know the answer to every question he asked. Adams noticed how the other lawyers on the defense team deferred to Boyle.
The accuser took the stand on the first day of the trial in August 1999, one year after the party at Whitewater. Under the prosecution’s questioning, she testified that she had been raped, though she couldn’t say with certainty that all three of the men had raped her. She said they had followed her to her room. It was tough to tell who had assaulted her, she testified, because the room was dark and she couldn’t make out faces. When her roommate burst into the room, one of the men—she couldn’t recall which one—met the roommate in the doorway with his pants pulled down.
“Fuck this shit,” the roommate said in response, according to her own testimony. She rushed out of the room, and the accuser chased after her. But then one of the three defendants directed the accuser to her own room, she testified, where the sexual assault continued.
Then Jerry Boyle’s turn came. Here is what the jury learned during cross-examination and throughout the whole of that first day of testimony:
The accuser testified that while they were having sex, she never said “no,” or expressed to the defendants that she did not want to have sex. She testified that the three defendants never threatened her in her room, never revealed any weapons, never raised their voices at her.
The roommate did burst in, and the accuser did chase after her. None of the three defendants stopped her from leaving the room, she testified. She knocked on the nearby door that her roommate had slammed. She wanted to know if her friend was mad at her, but did not tell her that she had been raped.
The accuser later testified that she knew a resident assistant lived on the floor—lived, in fact, between her own room and the one to which her roommate had fled. But she had not knocked on the RA’s door to ask for help.
She testified that she did not know which of the three defendants directed her back into her own room. In fact, she wasn’t sure it was one of the defendants at all.
By the third day of the trial, the prosecutor, Wade Newell, attempted to downgrade the charges from first-degree sexual assault to second- and fourth-degree. Jerry Boyle went ballistic. “I know of no provision under the law,” he argued before Judge Jacqueline Erwin, “that after all the testimony has been received, someone asks leave of the court to file [new charges].” Boyle’s argument was simple. The defendants were charged with first-degree sexual assault. The prosecution could not change the charge because the weak testimony no longer suited it. Erwin agreed. She declared a mistrial without prejudice.
Soon after, Jarrett Adams was free.
But Jarrett Adams was not, in fact, free. Erwin’s ruling—a mistrial without prejudice—did not mean that Adams was acquitted. It meant the state could try him again.
And the state did, a couple of months later. Adams got a letter saying that the prosecution had charged him and the two other defendants with second-degree sexual assault. Adams remained hopeful. But just before the second trial, his mother, Lois, told him she didn’t have the strength to sit through it. Adams, all of 18, didn’t understand. The evidence was still the evidence. “We’ll win,” he told her.
“You seem to think that this is about truth,” Lois said. “It’s not. It is not about what’s right.” In his memoir, Adams recounted their conversation. She talked about Emmett Till. How all those white people believed the story they wanted to believe about that Black boy and the “crime” he’d committed against that white woman. Lois sobbed like Adams had never seen her sob before. She said she couldn’t go back to Wisconsin with him.
Instead, Adams’s aunts, Josephine Scott and Catherine Varner, drove north with him, along with his father and his godfather. Josephine and Catherine had helped to raise Jarrett and his brother, Jamal, on the South Side. They had taken the boys to church each Sunday and watched them each afternoon. Jarrett wanted an acquittal at this second trial as much for his own freedom as for the absolution it would give him in the eyes of his aunts.
But this second time, in Wisconsin, the district attorney himself, David Wambach, led the prosecution. And this time the defense team did not include Jerry Boyle. That stunned Adams. Boyle had filed a motion just prior to trial arguing that the second-degree sexual-assault charge against his client, Rovaughn Hill, constituted double jeopardy. An appellate court had taken up the motion, which meant that Hill would no longer stand trial alongside Adams and Henley, which meant that Jerry Boyle could no longer defend Adams and Henley by association. (Fiske and Henley’s attorney had chosen not to join Boyle’s motion, though they had had the opportunity to do so.)
The trial opened, and this time the alleged victim relayed her story convincingly. She had been afraid, she said, but she remembered everything. Adams was the one who had tugged at her pants while she held her legs together and tried to keep them on, she testified. Hill was the one, when she ran after her roommate, who had returned her to her own room, where the sexual assault resumed. The testimony went like this, Adams remembers, not only with the accuser but with every other witness Wambach called. He asked precise questions. He received the detailed answers he expected. Kind of like Jerry Boyle.
Watching it all, Adams wished more than ever that Boyle were present.
Instead he had his own lawyer, John Fiske, who with Henley’s court-appointed attorney had called for a “no defense” strategy. Fiske thought the state’s case was so weak—there was no physical evidence of rape—that it would hang itself. So he barely highlighted any of the accuser’s discrepancies in testimony between the first trial and the second. He did not call any witnesses, and Adams says Fiske would not allow him to take the stand, either, though Adams begged him to. When the verdict came—defendants guilty—Jarrett Adams howled. He yelled that his life was ruined, that he was innocent. He said to his accuser, “You can’t even look at me.” Judge Erwin banged her gavel and demanded that Adams be silent.
At the sentencing hearing, she gave him 28 years. Henley got 20 years.
What to say about what followed? That Jarrett Adams learned to keep his head on a swivel in the Waupun Correctional Institution? And that he also learned to keep to himself, because any allegiance carried its opposite, too: some enemy, somewhere? However you put it, the problem is that the worn familiarity of prison blinds everyone to its horrors. So consider instead what, and who, helped Adams to feel something like hope. It started with his cellmate. Pops was a white guy in his 60s who worked in the prison law library.
“Let me look at your paperwork,” Pops said to him one night, as Adams later remembered the conversation. Pops nodded to the criminal case file Adams had brought with him from his trial. Adams handed it over.
One day Adams found Pops sitting on his bunk with the file open. Pops pointed at a name on the witness list.
“Who’s this?” he asked, according to Adams.
“Shawn DeMain,” Adams said. He explained how he and Henley and Hill had spent time with DeMain before the act, and seen him after it, too, when the three guys from Chicago and the accuser hung out together outside the dorm.
DeMain saw you and the alleged victim hanging out afterward?
Yeah, Adams said.
Pops’s eyes bulged. “Your lawyer needed to call him as a witness,” he said.
Pops told Adams that DeMain was a neutral party, someone without any affiliation to the accuser or the defendants and, even more important, someone who saw the woman with the defendants minutes after the act. If DeMain had testified about how he saw the three guys and the woman together after the incident, Jarrett Adams would likely be free.
“Your lawyer botched this case,” Pops told Adams.
Adams walked into the law library himself, to better understand how to fight his verdict, and he wrote to Jerry Boyle: Find Shawn DeMain. Rovaughn Hill had lost his double-jeopardy motion, and Hill’s solo trial wasn’t far away. Adams thought if Hill were acquitted, then that verdict would lead to Adams’s own exoneration.
Eventually Boyle hired an investigator to speak with DeMain in advance of Hill’s trial. DeMain then testified in court that he had hung out with the defendants and the accuser before the incident, and he had seen her leave for her room with two of them. He had also seen the defendants and the accuser together afterward. No one had seemed ill at ease in any way. Hill’s second trial, based on the strength of DeMain’s testimony, ended in a hung jury, with 11 out of 12 jurors voting to acquit. (DeMain declined to comment for this article.)
When Hill was tried again, a strange thing happened: Some exculpatory notes emerged that a Whitewater law-enforcement officer had written about Hill and Adams, which corroborated DeMain’s testimony and hadn’t been handed over previously. In May 2001, when the prosecution learned of the written testimony that had been suppressed, the state dismissed the case against Hill.
Rovaughn Hill was free.
Adams assumed that the justice afforded his friend would soon apply to him, too. “This case is cut and dried,” he later wrote. “Rovaughn has walked. Soon, I am sure, so will Dimitri and I.”
That didn’t happen. Adams remained behind bars because the prosecutor decided that the no-defense strategy John Fiske and Henley’s attorney had used meant that new evidence could not be accepted after the trial. Adams heard this line of reasoning from his new court-appointed lawyer, meant to help him with his appeal. It leveled him.
For far too long, perhaps a year, Adams refused to fight the courts. He refused to go to church, despite the pleas of his aunts and his mom. He refused, ultimately, to take their calls. The three women phoned the prison so often that a guard threatened solitary confinement unless Jarrett returned his family’s messages.
When Jarrett did, they praised God.
“We thought you died,” Josephine said, when all three women were patched through. “I swear we did.”
Jarrett apologized. He told his mom and his aunts he couldn’t grasp why life had treated him like this. Why Hill was out and he was stuck in his tiny cell.
“Because you’re stronger,” Josephine said.
That response got to him. He went back to the prison law library. Pops had told Adams about a case, Strickland v. Washington, that had set the precedent for ineffective counsel. It established that defendants could be freed on appeal if they could show that their trial attorneys were bad at their job and that their mistakes had likely affected the trial’s outcome. John Fiske had been ineffective as a trial lawyer in his no-defense strategy, Adams thought. Among other things, Fiske should have called Shawn DeMain to testify. Adams studied the Strickland case and more. He researched the cases Strickland cited, the Latin phrases the lawyers used. He spent hours, days, and eventually years in the prison law library.
Time passed. Waupun transferred Pops out of Adams’s cell. Adams himself was then transferred to a different prison: Green Bay Correctional Institution. About two miles from Lambeau Field and with fights everywhere, Adams says, skulls literally cracked open in the prison yard.
To the law library again, to stay safe, and where Adams could also apply all he was learning. At Waupun, he had started a practice he picked up again at Green Bay: appealing to a prison disciplinary review board on behalf of inmates who were accused of breaking the prison’s rules. It could be for fighting or for modifying one of the prison’s razors to get a decent shave. The penalties for such infractions included the loss of “good time,” the credit for good behavior that led to an inmate’s diminished sentence. Adams cited precedents on his clients’ behalf. It often worked. He developed a prison nickname: “Li’l Johnnie Cochran with the Glasses.” Adams’s payment request remained the same: books of stamps. He wrote hundreds of letters to attorneys, hoping that one would view the legal system as his new idol, Thurgood Marshall, had: “You do what you think is right and let the law catch up.”
In early 2004, the Wisconsin Innocence Project wrote to Adams to say it had received his letter asking for pro bono representation as Adams filed a writ of habeas corpus asking a federal district court to overturn his conviction. Adams, in citing the Strickland case, had made a convincing argument, WIP’s lawyers thought. They wanted to meet with him.
One day that spring, Adams walked to the prison’s visiting room and saw three people waiting for him.
“Keith Findley,” said one of them, an older white man. Findley was one of the co-directors of WIP, he explained, which was based out of the University of Wisconsin’s law school in Madison, where he was a professor. The two people with him were among his brightest students. Findley turned to Adams. “We want to take your case,” he said.
With WIP’s help, Adams filed his federal district-court appeal.
Nine months later, Findley called Adams: We’ve lost.
The next step was to appeal to the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, in Chicago. It would be their last best chance.
Chicago, Adams thought. The case would end where his life had begun.
Findley filed his brief to the Seventh Circuit in November 2005.
On June 30, 2006, the three judges on the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reached their decision.
They reversed the lower federal court’s ruling. The three Seventh Circuit judges wrote that Jarrett Adams’s conviction should be overturned. The state of Wisconsin had 120 days to try Adams again, the Seventh Circuit ruled, or release Adams from prison.
The state chose not to retry him.
After more than seven years behind bars, Jarrett Adams was free.
PART III: Waverly
Eleven years later, in 2017, Attorney Jarrett Adams walked up to a dais in Petersburg, Virginia. He had been invited to speak at the Petersburg Sheriff’s Office’s annual reentry forum by Sheriff Vanessa Crawford. In the crowd were inmates and people just released from the commonwealth’s prisons and county jails, taking their first steps toward reentering society. Adams looked out at the people packed into the church’s pews; he spotted sheriffs and their deputies and local clergy.
Adams started in.
His co-defendant Dimitri Henley had been freed from prison based on the success of Adams’s own exoneration. But because of a technicality, Henley’s criminal record wasn’t cleared, and he was still required to register as a sex offender.
Adams, however, had his record cleared, and he had vowed after his release from prison to become a lawyer, the sort he himself had never had at trial.
But when Adams looked in the mirror he still saw an inmate. When he heard a sudden noise behind him he still balled his hands into fists. He could only fall asleep at night in his mother’s and stepfather’s house if he first walked the perimeter of the bedroom. And when he drifted off, he often jerked awake again, convinced that within the house lurked a predator. Green Bay had only been that quiet in the hours before an attack.
His mom told him he should talk with someone. At first Adams resisted, but eventually he found a therapist. The man had worked with Holocaust survivors and told Adams his trauma had not ended at the prison’s gates. It lived in his every movement and the ticking of the clock in Lois’s living room, all the time Jarrett Adams had lost.
Adams found work as a handyman. The proceeds paid for the first semester of classes at South Suburban community college, the school he had planned to attend 10 years earlier. He made the dean’s list, qualified for a scholarship. After he received his associate’s degree he moved on to Roosevelt University, in downtown Chicago, on another scholarship. There, he majored in criminal justice, and applied for a job as an investigator at Chicago’s Federal Defender Program, a government outfit that provided legal services to clients who couldn’t afford them. Adams cried when he got the job.
Adams’s best education came from MiAngel Cody, a lawyer at the FDP with whom he often worked. Cody taught Adams that the best cases are great stories. People understand the world through story, Cody said, and stories convince juries and judges of a client’s innocence. Cody was demanding. If the details from Adams’s investigative findings weren’t vivid enough, she would send him back to a musty archive or a sullen witness to get more information. What she taught him worked. One of the cases on which she and Adams collaborated involved a man named Reynolds Wintersmith who had served nearly 20 years of a life sentence that he received when he was a teenager for dealing drugs. In 2013, President Obama commuted that sentence based on the strength of the plea—the strength of the story—that Adams had helped Cody craft. For his work on that case, Adams received the National Defender Investigator Association’s Investigator of the Year Award.
Adams was accepted on scholarship to Loyola University School of Law, and invited to speak at a luncheon of attorneys put on by one of the country’s most powerful firms, Perkins Coie. After his standing ovation, he met a Black woman named Joi who practiced corporate law. A woman who, when she agreed to have lunch with Adams, already understood him. The way his eyes still darted everywhere on the date: Joi got it. Her brother had been incarcerated, too. “Prison alters everyone,” she said.
Adams received his law degree from Loyola and then clerked for the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals—the court that had granted him his freedom. He got his first job as an attorney with the Innocence Project in New York, and became the first exoneree to work for the Innocence Project as a lawyer. His first case sent him back to Wisconsin. A mistaken-identity exoneration claim, the case relied on newly unearthed DNA evidence and featured a client, Richard Beranek, who had, like Adams, done time in Green Bay. One of Adams’s co-counsels on that case was Keith Findley, the lawyer who had helped free him 10 years earlier.
The whole story had a Hollywood feel to it, and NBC Nightly News did a piece on Adams in 2017, when a judge overturned Beranek’s conviction.
The exoneree Jarrett Adams’s first case as a lawyer resulted in another exoneration.
The NBC story came to the attention of Vanessa Crawford. Which brought the story of Jarrett Adams’s life to the church in Petersburg, Virginia, where he was now speaking at the annual reentry forum hosted by the local sheriff’s office.
When Adams’s speech was over, he stepped from the dais and moved through the crowd, shaking hands and accepting congratulations, and saw a woman near the back of the church. Middle-aged. Black. Waiting her turn to speak to Adams. Holding in her hands a manila folder.
“Mary Claiborne,” she said.
They shook hands.
She said she was a social worker and had read about his presentation on a message board at the office. She was also the aunt of Ferrone Claiborne, who, along with a co-defendant, Terence Richardson, was imprisoned for life, even though, she said, both men were innocent. She pressed the manila folder into Adams’s hand. It was a portion of the Claiborne-Richardson case file, she said. Would Adams look at it?
He paused. Adams had recently decided to leave the Innocence Project to establish his own solo practice. After the NBC piece, he had been inundated with pleas like Mary Claiborne’s: Look at my brother’s case … my husband’s … my son’s. If Adams were to make it in his own practice, he’d have to choose cases wisely. Otherwise he and Joi, now married, would risk bankruptcy, and he wouldn’t be able to serve any client.
Adams looked at Mary Claiborne. He saw on her face something familiar: the deep lines of worry creasing her forehead and burrowing beneath her eyes. Just like his own mother’s, Adams thought.
Where did the crime happen? he asked Mary.
Just down the road, she said, in Waverly.
Adams held up the folder. “I’ll take a look.”
This was what Adams saw in the evidence:
On Saturday morning, April 25, 1998, while on patrol, a 25-year-old officer in the Waverly, Virginia, police department named Allen Gibson Jr. saw a man run into the woods behind the Waverly Village Apartments. The town of Waverly, 45 miles south of Richmond, had roughly 2,500 people in 1998; around 60 percent of them were Black. Gibson was white. He had grown up in Big Stone Gap in western Virginia, a place as remote and working class as Waverly, though majority white. Gibson suspected a drug deal, but he did not radio for backup. He walked alone into the woods.
There, Gibson locked eyes with two Black men. Rather than flee, the men rushed Gibson, and began to wrestle with him for control of his handgun, a Glock .45. The gun went off, shooting Gibson in the stomach, about a half inch above his belly button and just below the bulletproof vest he wore while on patrol.
The men ran off. A resident who had heard the gunshot called 911, and within minutes help arrived. A sheriff’s deputy attended to Gibson and was soon joined by two state troopers. As he faded in and out of consciousness, Gibson told one of the troopers, Jarrid Williams, that he’d been attacked by two Black men, Williams later testified. One of the attackers, Gibson said, was tall and thin and had dreadlocks fashioned into a ponytail. The other was shorter, squatter, and bald, or maybe balding. Both wore white T-shirts with blue jeans. The tall man was the one who had wrestled Gibson for his gun. The struggle lasted a few seconds, and the man never got full control of the Glock. “It just went off,” Gibson told Williams. He couldn’t believe he’d been shot. “They shot me with my own damn gun,” he said.
Soon after the 911 call, the Waverly police chief, Warren Sturrup, sped to the scene in his squad car. He rushed to the back of the apartment complex and through the trees and saw Gibson lying near his gun. Sturrup picked up the gun; he later testified that he didn’t see it as potential evidence. He held on to it as he questioned the crowd that had gathered around the apartment buildings, asking anyone who knew anything to come forward. Some residents said the way Sturrup brandished the gun and swore intimidated them. He received no answers.
Gibson died later that day, at a nearby hospital.
The Sussex County Sheriff’s Department and the Virginia State Police investigated the murder. One tip came from Evette Newby, a resident on the second floor of the apartment building facing the woods. Newby said she’d seen three men go into the woods, and soon after saw two of them struggling with Gibson. She’d heard the loud pop of a gun come from the tree line. She told investigators that one of the men was Terence Richardson, 26, marginally employed and living in Waverly; the second was Ferrone Claiborne, 22, a friend of Richardson’s who stayed in nearby Hopewell; and the third was a man she’d seen with the other two before but whose name she didn’t know.
Richardson and Claiborne were arrested the following week and charged with capital murder for killing Gibson. They could face death sentences if convicted. They pleaded not guilty.
Both defendants swore they didn’t do it. Neither had been convicted of any felonies before. The lawyers for Richardson and Claiborne, the best their families could afford, noticed inconsistencies in the case against the two men.
First, Gibson said he’d seen two men. Evette Newby claimed she’d seen three.
Second, Gibson had said the tall and thin one—the one who he’d said had dreadlocks—was the one who wrestled with Gibson for control of his gun. Gibson was 5 foot 11; Richardson was 5 foot 8, three inches shorter than Gibson. And Richardson had cornrows. Claiborne, though he had shaved his head bald, was taller, around 6 feet. Gibson’s descriptions didn’t match up with Richardson and Claiborne.
Gibson had said both assailants wore white T-shirts. Minutes after the shooting, however, Ferrone Claiborne’s cousin Marilyn had seen Ferrone walking near Beale Boys, a store in Waverly a mile from the shooting, in a red-and-beige shirt. Richardson claimed that at the time of the shooting he was watching cartoons in the trailer home of his friend Shawn Wooden. Wooden himself told law enforcement on two different occasions that Richardson was at his home during the shooting.
But then Wooden’s story changed. On October 15, 1998, at a preliminary hearing for the trial, Wooden testified that he, Richardson, and Claiborne had all met on that Saturday morning to buy drugs from a guy they knew at the Waverly Village Apartments. Wooden testified that he was the lookout man, and Richardson and Claiborne were to buy drugs from the dealer in the back of the complex, near the tree line. If Wooden saw any cops, he would give Richardson and Claiborne a signal—“Skoo doo!”—and everyone would bolt.
Wooden said he saw a cop car pull up. The cop got out and started walking toward the back of the apartments. Wooden shouted, “Skoo doo!” He said he didn’t see Richardson and Claiborne run out from behind the apartment complex, though. He started riding away on his bike. Moments later, Wooden said, he heard a gun go off. Wooden biked faster, to his grandmother’s house, and later his own trailer, where Richardson met him. Richardson said he had “accidentally shot the cop,” Wooden testified. (Later, Wooden would testify that he witnessed the shooting and had made up the lookout story to avoid implicating himself in the crime. He could not be reached for comment for this article.)
The case wasn’t open and shut, however, and the prosecutor, J. David Chappell, knew it. Warren Sturrup, the Waverly police chief, had tarnished the best evidence: the fingerprints on Gibson’s gun. Wooden was a convicted felon and he had changed his story. Evette Newby had also changed her story: Though she’d eventually told investigators she had seen Claiborne and Richardson struggling with Gibson, the first time she gave her statement she had identified one of the assailants as a man who was, in fact, then in prison, and she had not identified Claiborne at all. Meanwhile, what Gibson had said about his assailants didn’t align with the physical descriptions of Richardson and Claiborne.
For months Chappell agonized over what to do. He thought that if he tried the case, an acquittal was “extremely likely,” he later told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. (Chappell didn’t reply to The Atlantic’s requests for comment.) On the eve of trial in December 1999, Chappell offered the defendants plea deals. Instead of facing capital murder and the possibility of the death penalty, Terence Richardson agreed to plead guilty to a lesser felony: involuntary manslaughter. Claiborne pleaded guilty as well, to a misdemeanor charge: accessory after the fact.
Richardson was sentenced to five years in prison. Claiborne, because of the time he’d already served in jail awaiting sentencing, walked out of the courtroom.
Gibson’s family was furious. His mother, Suzette, called Chappell a “coward” for offering the plea deals. Sussex County Sheriff E. Stuart Kitchens spoke to the media “through clenched teeth,” the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported, and said “the police were very disappointed in what happened this morning.” The outrage in law-enforcement circles grew and grew.
Eventually the feds got involved. The FBI, ATF, and U.S. Attorney’s Office in Richmond opened an investigation into Richardson and Claiborne. In early 2000, FBI and ATF agents arrested the pair and charged them with dealing crack cocaine and murdering Gibson. “Justice tripped a little bit in its first journey to bring closure to this incident,” Jeff Roehm, the ATF supervisor said. (No double-jeopardy claim applied, because federal prosecutors can indict a suspect for the same crime as prosecutors in a state court, thanks to a principle known as the dual-sovereignty doctrine.)
Once again, Richardson and Claiborne pleaded not guilty. They said they had taken the plea deal in state court only because they had been facing the death penalty. As for the crack? Richardson and Claiborne said they had never dealt crack.
Witnesses said otherwise. At the federal trial in June 2001, 16 people testified that either Richardson or Claiborne or both of them had sold crack cocaine at one point or another from 1991 to 1998. The assistant U.S. attorney on the case, David Novak, was persuasive when it came to the drug charges.
But he was less persuasive on the count of murder. The problem there was the same as it had been in the state court: no concrete evidence. No fingerprints matched Richardson or Claiborne to the crime, no blood samples, no DNA. Evette Newby, the neighbor upstairs, and Shawn Wooden, Richardson’s former friend, had both changed their stories. At one recess, Judge Robert E. Payne seemed impatient with questions on the murder charges and asked Novak to move along to the testimony about the drug dealing: “If you’ve got people who know [Richardson and Claiborne] were dealing drugs and people who can say that … I think you better get them on.”
The verdict came.
The federal jury found Richardson and Claiborne not guilty of killing Allen Gibson.
The jury then found the pair guilty of dealing 50 grams or more of crack.
The drug conviction carried a mandatory minimum of 10 years in prison. Presumably, this was the sentence jurors thought Richardson and Claiborne would receive, since the two men had no prior drug convictions.
Instead, at sentencing, Novak said the judge should give them more time, and consider in his sentencing the acquitted charge of murder. This argument was bound with case law involving a precedent known as acquitted-conduct sentencing. In a 1997 case, United States v. Watts, the Supreme Court had ruled in favor of the precedent, confirming that in a federal case, a judge can determine a defendant’s sentence based on charges a jury has acquitted them of. Acquitted-conduct sentencing relies on the notion that a judge can use a lower standard of proof when sentencing than the jury had to use when deciding guilt—a preponderance of evidence, instead of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. In other words, if a defendant is acquitted of murder but convicted of drug dealing, the federal judge can give them the highest possible drug-dealing sentence based on their belief that the defendant also committed the murder. The rationale stunned Richardson and Claiborne. Later, one juror on the case said she was shocked to learn that a judge could effectively ignore a jury’s acquittal.
But this was what Payne did.
Ferrone Claiborne and Terence Richardson had been found not guilty of murder by a jury of their peers.
They nonetheless received life sentences, as if they had done it.
When Jarrett Adams finished reading the case file, he felt overwhelming dread. Yes, he thought Richardson and Claiborne were very likely innocent, but who was he to take on a case of this complexity? Battle a state-court guilty plea, a federal-court drug conviction, a precedent upheld by the Supreme Court? More-experienced lawyers had backed away from this case and told Mary Claiborne it was “too political.” And here was Adams, with a “law firm” that was one corner of the living room in his and Joi’s apartment, and a “desk” that was a piece of wood on some cinder blocks.
But he spoke with the Richardson and Claiborne families. He saw Annie Westbrook, Terence Richardson’s mother, and how she sobbed and sobbed, as his own mother had. He heard the pain in the voice of Curtis Claiborne, Ferrone’s father. When Judge Payne delivered that sentence to Ferrone, Curtis said, he wanted to rush to his son and grab him and carry him to the window and jump, the two of them, just break through the window and fall to their death. That way, Ferrone would not know the life he knew now. “You done took his life, but I’m not going to let you,” Curtis wanted to say. “I’m going to take it. I’m the one who gave it to him; I’m going to take it.”
Adams saw all this pain and understood it. He decided he would take the case.
His mentor MiAngel Cody had taught him that the best cases are great stories.
What was the story of Waverly? Adams saw that maybe it began at the end: the sentence.
When Adams had worked in Chicago at the Federal Defender Program alongside Cody, he’d investigated a case whose sentencing relied on U.S. v. Watts and the precedent of acquitted conduct. He’d read up on the case law.
For most of the 19th and 20th centuries, federal judges had had wide discretion to hand down sentences as they alone saw fit. Sentences across jurisdictions varied drastically for similar crimes. Then, as now, “there were unquestionably racial disparities in sentencing,” the judge Nancy Gertner wrote in the Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law, “a tendency to punish black offenders more severely than white ones.”
In 1984, Congress passed the Sentencing Reform Act, which mandated that federal judges use uniform guidelines when sentencing. The idea was, basically, to quantify a decision that had been deeply subjective. By having judges and their courts’ probation departments base sentences on a 258-box grid, with the seriousness of an offender’s conduct expressed as a number between 1 and 43, the guidelines sought to bring order to more than a century of sentencing chaos.
But federal judges were not happy about having their discernment reduced to some elaborate grid. Perhaps aware of this, the commission that wrote the sentencing guidelines also allowed federal judges to retain some discretion, including by considering accusations that didn’t result in a charge or a conviction. That encouraged judges to rely on a legal concept known as acquitted conduct. Drawing on precedent from the idiosyncratic, pre-grid days, acquitted-conduct sentencing meant, in practice, that even after a jury had acquitted defendants of charges, a judge could still sentence them taking those same charges into account.
In 1997, acquitted-conduct sentencing was upheld by the Supreme Court. In U.S. v. Watts, the Court wrote that “acquittal merely proves, not that the defendant is innocent, but the existence of a reasonable doubt as to his guilt.” According to this logic, a judge can and should consider the “conduct underlying the acquitted charge, so long as that conduct has been proved by a preponderance of the evidence.”
All sorts of people thought this was terrible case law. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg did. So did Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. In 2014, when the Court decided not to hear an appeal in a case involving acquitted conduct, the three justices wrote a dissenting opinion arguing that this sort of case law “has gone on long enough.” In a 2015 ruling from his seat on the U.S. D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, the future Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote, “Allowing jury-acquitted conduct to increase a defendant’s sentence places defendants and their attorneys between a proverbial rock and a hard place; a hard-fought partial victory … can be rendered practically meaningless when that acquitted conduct nonetheless produces a drastically lengthened sentence.”
That was the argument one of Ferrone Claiborne’s lawyers, Jeffrey Everhart, used at the sentencing hearing in 2001. If we’re going to sentence like this, he asked, “why do we even have juries?” Even Judge Payne admitted that he didn’t like the precedents that had grown around acquitted-conduct sentencing. “I quite frankly am deeply troubled by” the practice, he said in response to Everhart’s question. “But the Supreme Court of the United States has held otherwise, and I can’t change that.”
Jarrett Adams thought that was laughable. (When asked for comment, an administrator in Payne’s chambers said the judge never responds to questions about adjudicated cases.) Still, Adams felt that Payne’s comment fit within an expanding pattern. The legal disgust with acquitted-conduct sentencing had influenced members of the Senate Judiciary Committee to co-author legislation in 2019 that sought to end the practice. The bill didn’t get a floor vote, but to Adams this proved only that no legal case yet illustrated for the public the flesh-and-blood injustice of the practice.
The public needed a story that gripped them. He was determined to tell one.
Adams turned next to the testimony given about Richardson and Claiborne’s alleged drug dealing. The deeper he dove into those pretrial depositions and the trial testimony, the more questions he had.
For instance: If Richardson and Claiborne were drug dealers, where were the measuring scales that had weighed those 50 grams of crack or more for which they had been convicted? There were none. There was no photographic proof of dealing. No audio recordings. For that matter, where was the money, Adams asked, the proceeds across seven years from all those supposed illicit transactions? Terence Richardson was so poor that he was crashing in Shawn Wooden’s trailer home at the time of Officer Gibson’s murder. Ferrone Claiborne was staying with family members. Neither owned a car. In fact, hours after Gibson was shot, sheriff’s deputies saw Claiborne pedaling the streets on a 20-inch kid’s bicycle. It was so pathetic, one deputy testified at trial, that he laughed at Claiborne.
Sixteen witnesses had testified at trial about seeing Richardson and Claiborne deal drugs at one or more points from 1991 to 1998. But of those, seven had had their own run-in with the law, and were hoping for reduced sentences or other forms of leniency by being witnesses for the U.S. government. Four others had ongoing legal problems. And none of the witnesses had said Richardson and Claiborne were big-time dealers; some said they sold maybe $20 worth in a transaction. Just enough to support their own drug use. “Support their own habits” was in fact a phrase that surfaced in a lot of testimony. (Both Richardson and Claiborne told me they had smoked marijuana and on rare occasions laced a blunt with cocaine. They continue to deny ever selling crack.)
But what about the remaining five witnesses, who testified to Richardson and Claiborne’s selling of drugs and were not currently in trouble with the law? One was an FBI agent, who said Richardson told him he “may have sold some drugs back in the day.” A second witness testified that she saw the pair make hand signals in a playground in Waverly known for drug dealing, but never saw them sell drugs. A third witness, who had two felony drug convictions, said Richardson had bought crack from her to sell. A fourth said she saw Richardson and Claiborne exchange money at the playground, but never drugs. The fifth offered vague testimony; it was unclear if she had seen Claiborne deal.
In the long-ago state case, in which Richardson and Claiborne had entered guilty pleas on dramatically reduced charges for murder, there was not one word about any drug deals. In fact, at the pre-sentencing hearing, the prosecutor said that as far as she knew, Terence Richardson had a speeding ticket against him but nothing else. “There’s nothing particularly aggravating about the defendant’s background,” she said.
Warren Sturrup, the former Waverly police chief, told me he oversaw numerous drug investigations in Waverly, a town of 2,500, in the years that overlapped with the ones in which federal agents said Richardson and Claiborne were dealing as part of a larger Waverly drug conspiracy. “Those names never entered the picture,” Sturrup said. “None of my officers knew them for dealing drugs.” Sturrup didn’t understand how exactly Richardson and Claiborne had been charged with drug dealing.
As Jarrett Adams dug deeper into the case, the how of the drug charge became less important a question for him than the why. The assistant U.S. attorney, David Novak, surely knew about the case law stretching back decades around acquitted conduct. Adams became convinced that was why Novak had brought the drug case: If he could earn a conviction on drugs, he could use the precedent of acquitted-conduct sentencing to persuade Judge Payne to factor the murder charge into his sentence, even if Novak lost on that charge. The defense teams, Adams learned, had been prepared for Novak to argue acquitted conduct even before the trial began. (Novak himself is now a federal judge. An administrator in his chambers told The Atlantic he doesn’t speak to the media about prior cases.)
In the state case, Claiborne told me, he had followed the lead of his lawyer, who had laid out all the reasons why Claiborne should plead guilty to the misdemeanor charge and avoid a state trial and the possibility of the death penalty. But come the federal case? He and Richardson would not consider any plea. “We were innocent,” Claiborne said. “Of everything.”
Jarrett Adams worked many long nights, as one year on Waverly became two, became three. Richardson and Claiborne had exhausted their federal appeals in the 16 years before they met Adams. So Adams knew that a great story on Waverly might not be enough. They might need exculpatory details—new evidence—too.
And that’s when he learned about the evidence from Shannequia Gay.
She was 9 years old in 1998. She lived in the Waverly Village Apartments, and on that Saturday morning in April, she was watching cartoons with her cousin Quay. Shannequia’s aunt told the two kids to go outside and play. So they did. What Shannequia saw when she went outside, well, she was later asked to tell it to investigators. A sheriff’s deputy transcribed it across three loose-leaf pages.
Two decades later, Jarrett Adams heard that this three-page statement might exist. There was an allusion to it in some documents he had pulled about the Gibson investigation, he says. Adams went to the sheriff’s department, asking about the Shannequia Gay statement, but the office was uncooperative. Adams got nowhere.
So Adams pulled the full case file from a federal archive. Not just the trial transcripts. The literal boxes of evidence, everything the government had used and had at any point considered as proof of the men’s guilt. There were thousands of pages of documents: everything the Sussex County Sheriff’s Department and the ATF and FBI had assembled on Terence Richardson and Ferrone Claiborne. Adams and his paralegal and investigative assistants got to work.
They found the three-page statement—and more.
Shannequia Gay had made the statement hours after Officer Gibson was murdered, at the request of detectives from the sheriff’s department. When Adams saw the document, he saw that the signatures included not only Gay’s but also that of the sheriff’s deputy on the investigative team who transcribed it, Greg Russell. The statement itself was dated Saturday, April 25, 1998, at 9:46 p.m. For the Sussex County Sheriff’s Department, Gay’s statement was official evidence.
Adams could barely contain himself. He read what Gay had said.
After her aunt told her and Quay to go outside on that Saturday morning, Shannequia got distracted by a cop car driving slowly past the apartment building where they were playing. The car came to a stop at the back of the apartment complex, and the cop—later identified as Gibson—got out and walked around the perimeter of the Village Apartments. He spoke into his police radio. Gay was close enough to see everything he was doing but not close enough to hear what he said.
It was at that point that a Black man—with dreadlocks, she said—bolted from behind the side of the apartment building and sprinted into the woods. Gibson turned and ran after him.
Gay said Gibson pulled his gun from the holster and “started walking real slow,” moving into the woods. The branches, the shadows—Gay could no longer see what was happening.
She heard a pop. “Something loud, it scared me,” Gay said in her statement. Her cousin Quay heard it, too. They ran toward the tree line, where they could see deeper into the woods.
They saw Gibson lying on the ground. From that vantage, she and Quay saw the man with the dreadlocks, too. He was running through the woods. Gay noticed the white T-shirt he wore.
Moments later, Gay ran back inside.
When Jarrett Adams read the statement, three things stood out.
The first was the statement’s consistency with Gibson’s. Just before he died, Gibson said his assailant was a man with dreadlocks. Shannequia Gay had also said she’d seen a man with dreadlocks. At the time, Terence Richardson wore cornrows. (A few weeks later, in a subsequent statement, Gay seemed unsure about whether the man she had seen had dreadlocks or long cornrows. Richardson’s cornrows were short, however, and in any case, a later report from the Virginia Office of the Attorney General characterized Gay’s first statement, on the day of the murder, as more credible.)
Second: Gay’s written statement offered the fullest eyewitness account yet of the murder. Evette Newby had said she’d seen Terence Richardson and Ferrone Claiborne struggling with Gibson in the woods through the window of her second-story apartment, and then heard the pop of a gun. Shawn Wooden had changed his story, but at the preliminary hearing in the state case, when he claimed to have been the lookout man for Richardson and Claiborne’s alleged drug deal, he’d said he hadn’t seen anything. He’d heard the gun go off and later listened as Richardson allegedly told him he’d accidentally shot Gibson. At the federal trial, he claimed to have seen the struggle between the men—though not the moment when the gun went off. (In a 2021 interview that the Virginia attorney general’s office conducted with Wooden, in prison, he appeared to stand by his testimony from the federal trial.)
But Shannequia Gay had seen Gibson pull up in his car and get out. She had seen the man with dreadlocks bolt from the side of the apartment complex and run into the trees. She had seen Gibson give chase. She had watched Gibson pull his gun and walk real slow until she could no longer see what was happening in the woods.
Gay’s statement sounded authentic, which brought Jarrett Adams to the third point. Gay’s statement had not surfaced in the state case, and she had not appeared as a witness at the federal trial. This suggested to Adams that her statement was evidence that the Sussex County Sheriff’s Department had suppressed.
Adams and his team kept digging in the archives, looking for answers. Then they found something else.
Shannequia Gay had been shown images of possible suspects on the day of Gibson’s murder. (Gay could not be reached for comment for this article.)
Around the time Gay had finished providing her statement, Greg Russell of the Sussex County Sheriff’s Department showed her a picture of a man with dreadlocks. According to a document written by the federal prosecutor, David Novak, Gay recoiled, appearing scared of the picture, although she did not identify him as the man she had seen.
Around midnight, and still being questioned by other sheriff’s deputies and a special agent with the Virginia State Police, 9-year-old Shannequia Gay was shown a full lineup. According to Novak’s document, she saw in this lineup the photo of the man who had a few hours earlier scared her. She chose his photo out of the lineup. He was in position number two.
The man’s name was Leonard Newby.
Jarrett Adams quickly looked into Newby. Leonard Newby did have a criminal past, and had been out on bond for a felony gun charge on the day of Gibson’s murder. According to court documents, Newby was currently in state prison for “malicious wounding.” Most telling, Leonard Newby was Evette Newby’s brother. (Neither Leonard Newby nor Evette Newby replied to The Atlantic’s requests for comment.)
Evette Newby was, of course, the witness who’d said she’d seen Terence Richardson and Ferrone Claiborne struggling with Gibson from her second-story apartment.
Had Evette Newby told the sheriff’s deputies this story to cover for her brother? If so, why did the department believe her account and not Gay’s?
One answer might have been that Leonard Newby said he was in Smithfield, some 30 miles from Waverly, on the morning of the murder. He wrote in a statement to law enforcement that he was at his sister Lorenda Taylor’s house there, and getting his beard and mustache trimmed at Seaborne’s Barber Shop that morning, according to a report on the investigation carried out by the Virginia attorney general’s office.
Lorenda backed up his account, but the barber, Troy Seaborne, told law enforcement that Newby didn’t show up at his shop until the afternoon—around 12:45 p.m., perhaps, and maybe as late as 2 or 3 p.m. Meanwhile, according to Warren Sturrup, the police chief, people in Waverly continued to insist that they had seen Newby in Waverly the morning of the murder. A few days after the homicide, the Virginia State Police found on its answering machine an anonymous tip from a male caller who said Leonard Newby had been “involved” in the murder and then had cut his dreadlocks to hide the identifying trait that linked him to Gibson’s description of the assailant. The investigative report carried out by the Virginia attorney general’s office said the Sussex County Sheriff’s Department appeared to have made no effort in 1998 to see if Newby had indeed cut his hair after the murder. “There is no indication that Seaborne was ever asked if Newby cut his dreads off during this appointment nor is there any information regarding Newby’s appearance during the investigation,” the report stated. (Seaborne didn’t respond to The Atlantic’s request for comment.)
In 2020, Jarrett Adams contacted David Boone, the lawyer who had represented Richardson in the state case two decades before, when Richardson and Claiborne had faced a charge of murdering Gibson and ultimately pleaded guilty to drastically diminished offenses. (By that point, Claiborne’s attorney had died.) Adams wanted to know if the defense, as they prepared their cases in state court, had access to the Shannequia Gay evidence.
Boone wrote back. He said he didn’t recall seeing any of the Gay evidence and agreed to write an affidavit for Adams. “If I had information that someone else was identified as running from the crime scene,” he wrote in December 2020, “it would have definitely changed my defense of Mr. Richardson. Instead of a plea agreement, I would have used the identification evidence in an effort to exonerate my client.” (Greg Russell, one of the sheriff’s deputies who investigated the murder, wrote in an email to The Atlantic, “Every item in my case file … [was] turned over to the lead investigators.” He said the image that had scared Gay, before she saw the lineup, showed Terence Richardson, not Leonard Newby. Russell’s claim is at odds with the written statement of David Novak, the federal prosecutor, from 2001, which said that the photo that scared Gay was of Newby.)
Adams then went to the prosecutor in the state case, J. David Chappell, who agreed to write his own affidavit. In it, dated December 16, 2020, Chappell wrote, “To the best of my recollection, I do not recall receiving information that any person identified someone other than the defendants in a photo lineup as the perpetrator in the death of Officer Gibson or any accompanying statement reflecting that …
“Based on the evidence I had before me at the time,” Chappell continued, “I had no doubt that the defendants were the criminal agents in the death of Officer Gibson and had I thought otherwise I would not have agreed to accept their guilty pleas.”
At last, Adams saw how he could write the story of Waverly. He had new evidence—evidence of a murder suspect who was not Richardson or Claiborne, and evidence that Adams believed had been suppressed. If he could clear them of the murder, Adams thought, it could render their federal drug sentences moot—time served, effectively—because Adams could argue that the 20 years the pair had already spent in prison was a punishment above and beyond the crime (selling 50 grams or more of crack). As Adams saw it, the entire federal case was predicated on what had happened first in Virginia state court. And in that state case, there had been no mention of the Shannequia Gay evidence.
Adams wrote to someone who could reopen the state case and even begin his own investigation of its evidence: Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring.
If Herring’s office joined the petition for a writ of actual innocence, Adams wrote, the case could be reopened in state court and the guilty pleas Richardson and Claiborne had entered could be withdrawn; once the pleas were withdrawn and the two men had been judged innocent of murder, Adams would attempt to take the claim to federal court and work on the drug sentence. Adams sent the letter to Herring on December 21, 2020.
In August 2021, when Adams still had not received final word from Herring about his position, he and Joi flew from their home in Los Angeles to Virginia, and, one Sunday afternoon, went to a fundraiser for Herring in McLean, driving five hours so Adams could have five minutes with the attorney general.
He wanted to bring the story of Waverly to its conclusion.
PART IV: “Actual Innocence”
Two days after the fundraiser, Adams picks me up at my hotel in Richmond.
We head to the prison, FCI Petersburg, to visit Terence Richardson and Ferrone Claiborne. Drab single-story buildings stretch across the lush green valley outside Petersburg. COVID-19 policies at the prison prevent anyone but family or lawyers from visiting inmates, but Adams and I are free to chat in the lobby until the guards summon him to meet Richardson and Claiborne in the visiting room.
He says that as Richardson and Claiborne’s lawyer he could just call them from L.A. with updates on the case, but he visits them often because he understands how much any visit means. Yes, they discuss their case’s progress—the guys are as hungry for that information as Adams was hungry for his own in Waupun and Green Bay—but many times they talk about anything else. Adams knows how important it is for an inmate to feel human, if only for an hour.
However hard this case is on Adams, he knows that it’s harder on his clients. Richardson told me the stress of the trials 20 years ago burst blood vessels in his eyes; the dread never lifted. This past summer, administrators at FCI Petersburg held a movie night for inmates. Just Mercy. The part in the film where a prisoner named Richardson approached his execution? Terence had to walk out. “I burst out in tears and had to go to my cell, balling [sic], crying,” Terence wrote to me in a letter. “I called my mom and when she said hello I couldn’t even speak from crying … So depressed. I’ve been like that since day one.
“It’s like a nightmare you just can’t wake up from.”
Terence Richardson’s cornrows are long gone now. He is 50 years old and was recently fitted for a hearing aid. His and Ferrone Claiborne’s relatives are aging too. Ferrone’s dad, Curtis, got COVID in 2020, and for a while it didn’t look like he would make it. Even after doctors released him from the hospital he remained shaken. He had one thing to say to Jarrett Adams: Get my boy out before I die.
“Adams?” the guard near the metal detector shouts.
Jarrett’s eyes turn from mine. He exhales. He collects himself and rises.
Adams buttons his suit jacket and walks toward the prison guard.
September 1, Adams is back in L.A., on a Zoom call with two of Attorney General Mark Herring’s top staffers. Adams is joined by two members of his own legal team.
Herring’s people say they need more time. They’re finding more stuff, they say, and Herring wants a full accounting of everything because the Virginia Court of Appeals has a record of ruling against innocence claims and—
Wait, Adams and his team say. Ruling against innocence claims. “You guys are joining our writ?”
Yes, the AG’s staffers say.
When Adams calls me with the news the next day, he sounds a bit dazed. “It still doesn’t feel real,” he says.
For a long time it isn’t. It takes Herring’s office two more months to officially issue its decision: a 78-page brief listing all the reasons the attorney general will join Adams’s writ. Adams gets the email at nearly 11 p.m. on November 1, the night before Election Day.
Late at night on November 2, a new fact emerges that influences the Waverly case: Herring has lost his reelection bid to Jason Miyares.
Miyares has run on a platform to “restore law and order,” “stand with police,” and “stop the far-left wing agenda in Richmond.” Even before he officially takes office in January, he announces his intention to fire the lawyers working within the AG’s conviction-integrity unit, which investigated wrongful convictions under Herring. Miyares says publicly that he’s broadening the unit’s focus to pursue special investigations and cold cases. “There’s a new sheriff in town,” he tells Fox News. Privately, two of Miyares’s attorneys call Adams to discuss the writ. They seem warm and curious about the case at first, Adams says, but that doesn’t last. On February 4, Miyares’s team writes the court of appeals to say it “has reconsidered the Commonwealth’s position in this case.” The new attorney general officially withdraws his office’s support of Adams’s writ of actual innocence. It is “straight bullshit,” Adams tells me that day, exasperated. Weeks later, Miyares expands on his position in a 52-page brief opposing the writ.
The Shannequia Gay evidence is not new evidence, the brief contends. Gay was one of several people subpoenaed by J. David Chappell, the state prosecutor, during the state court proceedings, and therefore was known to both him and the defense attorney as a potential witness. In addition to that, the fact that two state-court attorneys wrote affidavits in 2020 saying they did not remember seeing the Gay evidence in 1998 and 1999 proves nothing, the Miyares brief argues. Chappell did not have access to his old case file when he wrote his 2020 affidavit. Neither did David Boone, the defense attorney. According to Miyares’s brief, Boone also said in a 2021 interview with Attorney General Herring’s office that he had “a memory issue related to a medical condition.”
Miyares also contends that the guilty plea for involuntary manslaughter is itself evidence of Richardson’s guilt, because it was entered willingly by Richardson and his counsel Boone. (The petition for actual innocence focuses on Richardson, who was charged with a felony, whereas Claiborne was charged with a misdemeanor.) Furthermore, the appellate court should ignore the acquittal for murder that Richardson and Claiborne received from the federal jury in 2001, which is not relevant in the state-court involuntary-manslaughter claim now before Virginia’s appellate court.
Miyares’s brief suggests that the appellate court should simply dismiss Adams’s petition for a writ of actual innocence.
“It’s weak as fuck,” Jarrett Adams tells me when I call him for his take on Miyares’s full brief.
He says he could count all the ways in which Miyares is wrong. How a name on a subpoena list is just that: a name on a list, which lacks all evidentiary context. Or that even if you grant that memory loss happens for lawyers over decades, nothing in the attorneys’ actions at that time suggested that they knew Shannequia Gay’s importance: nothing from Chappell’s filings or statements to the press where he mentioned Gay; nothing in Boone’s defense at the sentencing hearing in 2000 about Gay, when exculpatory evidence like hers would have been most useful in reducing Terence Richardson’s prison sentence. Adams says he could talk about how an acquittal for murder from a federal jury should weigh heavily not only in federal court but in any court—an argument that former Attorney General Herring agrees with …
On and on.
Above all, Adams sees Miyares’s brief as political. (A Miyares spokesperson denies this characterization.) As attorney general, Mark Herring spent “damn near a year” investigating the claims in the writ of actual innocence, Adams says. Miyares, meanwhile, didn’t even wait until he was sworn in to announce the firing of the lawyers in the attorney general’s office who worked with Herring on claims of actual innocence.
It wears on Adams. To be that close to a path to exoneration—Adams had talked about a release of his clients “within months” when Herring joined the writ—and then to have that work undone by Miyares. In one phone call in March, Adams blows up at me. When we connect two weeks later over Zoom he apologizes. He is crafting a legal response to Miyares’s brief while taking on an ever-larger load of paying cases to bankroll the pro bono exoneration work that obsesses him.
He looks haggard. He is in his office, in a T-shirt, working on a Sunday afternoon and sipping a cappuccino because he has more work to do. He hardly sees friends anymore. He admits to wanting something he would have never considered a year ago: a sabbatical. This case has aged him, he says.
As of late May, the Court of Appeals of Virginia is still weighing its decision, which may happen this summer, but may not. The appellate court might first call for an evidentiary hearing, and then issue a subsequent and final judgment on that new evidence. But then there is the possibility for an appeal to the Virginia Supreme Court, and the question of how the federal court will respond to any state-court ruling. It could be years now before this case is resolved.
When Adams thinks about this new reality he often thinks about his own case and how he thought he was so close to freedom there, too, after the case against his co-defendant Rovaughn Hill was dismissed. And yet it was five more years before Adams was freed.
He imagines how an evidentiary hearing might proceed. He may call as witnesses lawyers from the office of the former AG, Mark Herring, to respond to the claims of the current AG. He still has faith in the story he has been crafting. He realizes now that it is not only the story of Waverly but of his own life, the exoneree who became the lawyer he wished he’d had, the one who never gives up and, because of that, prevails.
In whatever days lie ahead, it is the only story he will allow himself to believe.
This article is part of our project “The Cycle,” which is supported by a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge.
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