A man convicted of first-degree murder was sentenced to the electric chair, but after five years in prison he was proven innocent and released. Jeremy Sheets, a member of the Witness to Innocence organization, came to KU to speak to students and faculty about his experience on death row and about certain aspects of the U.S. criminal justice system.
Witness to Innocence is an organization of death row exonerees who are striving to educate the public about the death penalty and to eliminate it from our justice system. According to the organization, Witness to Innocence, “Sheets was arrested for the 1992 rape and murder of 17-year-old Honors student Kenyatta Bush in Omaha. He was convicted in 1997 based exclusively on a taped confession made by his co-defendant, Adam Barnett.”
Sheets recounted his side of the story for the KU audience that attended ACE’s event. In 1997, 22-year old Sheets was serving his 11th month in the U.S. military when his long-time best friend, Adam Barnett, called him on the base phone. The phone call was set up by the police in an effort to get Sheets to admit to being an accomplice to the crime that Barnett was being charged for. Sheets was confused by the phone call. Immediately as he hung up, police swarmed in and took him to jail without an explanation for four days without contact to anyone.
Sheets sat in jail for four months before being taken to an evidentiary hearing in front of a judge. At the hearing, evidence that Sheets was guilty was to be brought in.
“At this point, Adam Barnett was telling everyone that I was innocent—and the police knew that, the D.A. knew that—so instead of bringing in this witness at the hearing to show that they have a witness against me to hold me over for trial, they didn’t bring [Barnett] in, instead they just brought a cop in,” said Sheets.
He recalled that the officer said they have a witness to testify against Sheets at trial and that was all the court needed to keep Sheets in jail.
“And this is where it gets really interesting, because right after that hearing Adam Barnett hung himself,” said Sheets.
After Barnett was dead, the court made up for his absence by choosing one of his seven statements to use against Sheets at trial.
“Adam Barnett was saying some crazy things. How it started at first was it was at a party. And all the sudden out of the blue Adam Barnett started telling some people that he and I had killed this girl. So of course they called the cops,” said Sheets.
The cops rushed to the scene to arrest Barnett for murder and Barnett began telling the police that Sheets told him about it.
Sheets explained that the cops did not believe Barnett’s response so, they asked him for another statement. Barnett’s second statement was that he and Sheets picked this girl up from her school and then Sheets stabbed her to death, but the cops didn’t believe that response either. Sheets informed the audience that the police continued to pressure Barnett for answers and assured him protection if he testified against Sheets.
The next statement Barnett made was that Sheets kidnapped, raped and stabbed the girl, which the police believed.
“They convicted me at trial. They wouldn’t let us put in the autopsy report, or acknowledge the fact that I didn’t even own the vehicle that Adam Barnett claimed I used,” said Sheets on the lack of evidence.
Six months after being convicted, Sheets was sentenced to death by electric chair. He was then transferred to death row, which he described as, “the little building smack dab in the middle of the prison with its own fence around it.”
It took four years until the Nebraska Supreme Court returned his first appeal, which on average normally takes six months. After waiting for four years, Sheets won his first appeal; the court said that Barnett’s statement was deemed unreliable and inconsistent. Sheets did not get to leave after winning his appeal; instead, he had to wait until the state appealed to the Supreme Court, which took several months before they agreed that there was no evidence.
After being locked on death row for four years, Sheets was finally proven innocent and able to return to the outside world at the age of 27.
“Within minutes I went from waiting for the electric chair to standing outside,” Sheets said.
It has been over 11 years since Sheets was released from jail. His life has never returned to the way it once was; people run away from him and his time in jail follows him like a shadow everyday.
“It’s still on my record. It says first degree murder, use of weapon to commit a felony and in little tiny letters on the side it says dismissed,” Sheets informed.
Today, Sheets feels very blessed to have found his second wife who allows him to be a stay at home dad with their five young boys in Colorado. He is currently seeking therapy to deal with his painful memories of death row.
Sheets hopes that his experience will educate people about the death penalty.
“We are killing innocent people, I guarantee you,” he said.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, “Since 1973, 141 people in 26 states have been released from death row with evidence of their innocence.” Sheets urges people to acknowledge the death penalty and its issues.
By Haley Bianco