Jarrett M. Adams

Apparent consensual sex led to rape conviction

In 2000, an all-white jury in Jefferson County, Wisconsin, convicted two young African Americans from Chicago, Jarrett M. Adams and Dimitri Henley, of the second-degree sexual assault of a white female student at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. Adams and Henley were sentenced to twenty-eight years in prison. A third African American defendant, Rovaughn Hill, was twice tried separately. His first trial ended in a hung jury. When exculpatory new evidence came to light, Hill’s second trial ended in dismissal of the charges, which the judge prohibited the prosecution from reinstating.

The purported sexual assault occurred on September 5, 1998. Late that afternoon, Adams, Henley, and Hill were playing video games in a university dormitory room with a student named Shawn Demain, whom they had met only that day. The alleged victim, Shawn E. Stratton, and her roommate, Heidi Sheets, stopped by Demain’s room and — Sheets would testify — invited Adams, Henley, and Hill to their room four floors above. On the way upstairs, Sheets stopped at another room. When she later arrived at her own room, she found Stratton on a bed with two of the men. She was performing oral sex on one of the men on the bed, while the third man was on the floor with his pants down. Revolted, Sheets stormed out, going down the hall to another room. Stratton followed her, asking, “Are you mad at me?” Sheets called her “a slut.”

Stratton’s account of course was different. She denied that the three young men had been invited upstairs. Rather, she testified, they suddenly appeared behind her when she opened the door. She had not engaged in oral sex — the scene described by Sheets simply was not as it appeared. The three men had sexually assaulted her, she insisted. She had not consented to engage in sex with them. On cross examination, Stratton acknowledged that she had said nothing to indicate she was being assaulted either when Sheets came into the room or when the two conferred in the hallway. In fact, after running after Sheets, rather than seeking help or leaving the building, she returned to the room where she had non-consensual sexual intercourse with the three men.

Sometime shortly after the men left, Stratton called her boyfriend, Joshua Lodwick. She told him she had been raped. She did not want him to come to her room, and instead she went to his. He wanted her to go to a hospital and call police, but she initially did not want to do that. The next morning she changed her mind and went to a hospital. The day after that — two days after the alleged assault — Police Sergeant Faye Schouten interviewed Stratton and took a report on which the charges would be based.

At the trial of Adams and Henley before Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Jacqueline R. Erwin in February 2000, the prosecution relied almost entirely on Stratton’s testimony. Even though there was no evidence that the men had used or threatened to use force — a required element of second-degree sexual assault — the jury found both men guilty.

After Henley exhausted state appeals, he sought assistance from the Wisconsin Innocence Project. At this point, his time limit for filing for a federal writ of habeas corpus had run out. Adams, however, had one week to go. Keith A. Findley, co-founder of the project, noticed a crucial bit of exculpatory evidence that had been ignored at the trial — a police report quoting Demain, the student in whose room Stratton had met the defendants, as saying he had seen her socializing with the alleged assailants in the smoking area of the dormitory after the supposed gang rape occurred.

Moreover, Demain had so testified to that effect at Hill’s trial, which had ended in a hung jury in February 2001. Yet trial counsel at the Adams-Henley trial — John Fiske for Adams, Steven J. Lurchsinger for Henley — had failed to locate Demain and call him as a witness. Findley quickly drafted a habeas petition contending that it, along with other omissions by Fiske, had deprived Adams of his right to effective assistance of counsel. U.S. District Court Judge J.P. Stadmueller disagreed. He denied the habeas, holding that not calling Demain had been a reasonable strategic choice.

Not so, said the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, which granted the writ on June 30, 2006, holding that Fiske and Lurchsinger “had no real strategic reason for their decision not to call Demain.” On February 9, 2007, the prosecution finally dropped the charges against Adams and he was released.

On January 25, 2008, Judge Erwin ordered a new trial for Henley, who was released on $1,000 bond two weeks later. The prosecution appealed Judge Erwin’s decision to the Wisconsin Court of Appeals, where it currently is pending.

— Rob Warden