Innocence behind bars
Aaron Patterson, now a stocky 38-year-old, grew up in a strict, third-generation Catholic family. He and his older brother, Raymond, were altar boys at church and received a private Catholic school education for much of their lives.
But during first grade, when his family moved to the South Side of Chicago – a primarily black neighborhood with pockets of poverty and crime – the orbit of Patterson’s life began to shift. Though his parents imposed curfews on their boys, the streets – and the dangerous activity that happened on them – became increasingly magnetic. Still, after high school, he joined the National Guard and went for basic training in Oklahoma. A week before he finished he broke his ankle playing football and was sent home to recover. According to his mother, his return to Chicago led to increasingly serious conflict with the law.
‘He had got his freedom [in the National Guard] so he wanted to do what he wanted,’ JoAnne explains. ‘When he got back he was gung-ho out there. He was back with some friends he used to run around with, and the next thing you knew, he and his father got in a confrontation.’
Aaron did not argue with his parents; he ran away from them and went to stay at his girlfriend’s house
Aaron did not argue with his parents; he ran away from them and went to stay at his girlfriend’s house, where a lot of illegal activity took place. ‘He disappeared,’ JoAnne says. ‘He got in with other guys who were just out there doing anything they could get away with.’
A stubborn, determined young man with a penchant for questioning authority, Patterson began getting in trouble with the police for gang-related fights. Though his parents were not fully aware of it, Patterson had assumed a leadership role in Chicago’s Apache Rangers street gang.
In 1986 he went into hiding after a particularly brutal fight. He learned that the police were looking for him, knocking down the doors of people he knew in order to find him. When they finally caught up with him on 30 April 1986, says Patterson, he was astonished to learn what the charge was – a bloody double homicide of an elderly couple about a mile from his home.
When the police finally caught up with Patterson on 30 April 1986, he was astonished to learn what the charge was – a bloody double homicide of an elderly couple about a mile from his home
By most accounts, it was a brutal murder. The victims – who were ‘fences’, buying and selling stolen goods – had been stabbed many times, their bodies left to decompose in their cluttered house amidst a spilled pot of rice and beans.
The police interrogated Patterson for 25 hours. During his trial in 1989 police provided an unsigned confession from that interrogation, and the testimony of a 16-year-old girl who alleged that Patterson had told her that he had murdered the couple. Patterson was sentenced to death as a result, and has now spent 14 years on death row.
One way or another, America continues to rely on prisons and jails to solve its social-welfare problems. A report from the US Bureau of Justice Statistics in August 2002 notes that a record-breaking 6.6 million Americans are currently involved with the criminal justice system in one way or another. The state of California, for example, routinely spends more on prisons than on education.
‘What we’re seeing is the culmination of 30 years of “get tough” sentencing policies,’ says Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project in Washington DC. ‘Much of it goes back to the late 60s and early 70s. There was a period of rising crime and the means chosen to deal with it was to crack down on offenders – to “send them a message”. Political leaders of all persuasions jumped on board, thinking it was a good strategy to help them with their own re-election efforts.’
A record-breaking 6.6 million Americans are currently involved with the criminal justice system in one way or another
‘We overuse incarceration in the US, if we compare ourselves to the rest of the post-industrialized democracies,’ adds Ron Huff of the University of California at Irvine. ‘As a result, a lot more people are convicted in error.’ A survey his university conducted shows a 0.5 per cent chance of wrongful felony convictions – the possibility of at least 7,500 innocent people being incarcerated for serious crimes they did not commit.
Increasing scrutiny of the criminal-justice system has come in tandem with the growth of ‘innocence projects’ – organizations dedicated to freeing wrongfully imprisoned individuals. These projects have taken a lead from an organization founded by law professors Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld at New York’s Benjamin N Cardozo School of Law in the early 1990s.
Scheck and Neufeld’s first victory came in 1992 with the release of David Vasquez, a ‘borderline mentally impaired’ man from Virginia who was sentenced to 35 years for murder. He reportedly admitted to the crime, but a DNA test eventually led to his exoneration. He served five years of his sentence.
With the highly publicized success of the New York innocence project’s work, programs began cropping up all over the country. More than 30 have emerged in recent years – in New Orleans, Texas, North Carolina, and two in California. This network has helped to free 114 innocent people.
‘The first year I went to talk to Barry [Scheck] and Peter [Neufeld, in 1998], there were a few others and we fitted in to a 10-by-20 room,’ recalls John Pray, a law professor at the University of Wisconsin. ‘Last January  we had a conference in San Diego and now there are hundreds of people who have started or are interested in starting an innocence project. The whole movement has grown... DNA shows the flaws of the system and how convictions could go in the wrong direction. DNA has emboldened people to look at other cases. Now we know there is an error rate, and people can be convicted erroneously. But there are also cases where there is no DNA evidence, and we have begun to see some important patterns, to look at other ways to prove someone is innocent without DNA.’
These programs have focused attention on problem areas of the system: witness-identification error, overzealous cops or prosecutors, coerced confessions, inappropriate use of jailhouse snitches, ineffective assistance of defense counsel, forensic error or fraud. Underlying these problems are issues of race and class. There have been some very real impacts, including moratoriums on the death penalty in some states.
Ronald Eisenberg of the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office asserts that innocence projects inflate a nominal issue. ‘They are dealing with a tiny, tiny fraction of criminal cases,’ he says. ‘They claim about 100 exonerations. In a city like Philadelphia there are 50,000 arrests a year. I think the system has a built-in system of checks and balances and I don’t think that we, as a system, can or should rely on [innocence projects] to represent most defendants.’
Aaron Patterson might not agree with him. The evidence in his case simply does not support the verdict. Fingerprints found at the crime scene – which have since been lost by the state – did not match Patterson. The girl who testified at the trial has recanted, saying the police intimidated her into providing false testimony.
Patterson also says police detectives tortured him by suffocating him with a typewriter cover and beating him until he agreed to go along with a confession, which he ultimately refused to sign. Jon Burge, the commander who oversaw police detectives, was fired in 1993 for torturing a suspect in a double-murder case, and one judge called Burge’s actions an ‘established practice’ of torturing suspects. But Patterson, and the others on death row who claim they were tortured – dubbed the ‘Death Row Ten’ – were not immediately given new trials.
Patterson says he wants to be released because of his innocence, not because of issues related to his interrogation. He continues to organize from his jail cell, writing letter after letter to his mother, organizations, churches and individuals. JoAnne says these letters are his way of dealing with death row: ‘When he go back to the cell he said: “Well, I got to do something here because these people are going to kill me.”’
Several years ago Patterson sent one of these letters to an innocence project at Northwestern University led by Professor David Protess. Since then different groups of students have worked on cracking the case. Earlier this year, ongoing work by students provided even stronger evidence of Patterson’s innocence, including an affidavit from an individual who says the real killer confessed to him about the killings.
Patterson’s supporters are trying to get a pardon for him from the Illinois Governor so that he will be released as an innocent man. With the possibility of a new trial, and new information gathered by Protess and his students, JoAnne Patterson says she is guardedly optimistic about her son’s eventual release.
‘I just know sooner or later he’ll walk out of that prison, but I don’t know when or how,’ she says. ‘I was mummified, and just sick with this thing. There are so many others like this who are innocent, so we keep fighting. I always thought that justice ruled; I was totally naïve about the justice system. Then it dawned on me: it’s a game, and they’re going to keep shuffling papers and shuffling papers until my kid is dead.’
Aaron Petterson was released from prison on Friday 10 January 2003, one of four people to receive clemency from Governor Ryan of Illinois before he left office.