On the streets, Aaron Patterson ruled with charisma and brute force. On Death Row, he survived through anger. Now that he has been exonerated and freed, he's finding the same traits that served him so well in the past sometimes get in the way of his new goals: ending the violence, building up the neighborhood and reforming the criminal justice system. He still speaks loudly and passionately. But will anybody listen? Can Patterson make good on his promises and ambitions?
On Death Row, Aaron Patterson kept his birthday a secret.
Other prisoners wanted the entire unit to know. They'd yell down the gallery that they had just turned 24 or 50. "Happy birthday, brother" echoed off the stone walls and steel bars, providing the condemned a moment of normalcy and triumph. He had escaped execution for another year.
For Patterson, a former altar boy turned gang leader turned convicted murderer, birthdays were different.
"It was a day to take stock," he says. "What had I accomplished in my life? What did I contribute to mankind? Nothing."
The answer filled him with despair. He promised himself and his maker that if he ever got home, the next time he faced death he would be able to say he had contributed something. That the world became a little better because Aaron Patterson was still in it and had not been executed for a crime he did not commit.
"When it's my time to meet God," he now says, "I want to be on track."
Today, Patterson, at age 39, is getting that chance. Since his release from Death Row 10 months ago, his goals have been at once simple and far-fetched, concrete and quixotic.
He is going to run for political office someday and "shake the system up from the inside." He is going to save those he left behind the walls, and bail out others who need his help.
He is going to close crack houses and use his influence among gang members to turn street corner drug dealers into productive citizens. He is going to give them jobs cutting grass and shoveling snow.
He is going to bend his old world to his new vision.
His first months of freedom have been a mighty struggle, as rage and reason battle it out for his soul. The same qualities that kept him alive on the streets and in prison--his refusal to back down, his reflexive resistance to authority--now get in the way as he tries to write a new chapter in his life.
Months after his release from prison, someone asks him how he had survived. "Anger. Anger. Anger," he replies.
"I know I'm messed up," he adds. "I know I'm scarred for life."
He is no innocent. But he was innocent of the crime he was condemned to die for: the murder of a couple in their home on the Southeast Side of Chicago in the spring of 1986.
Last January, after Patterson had spent nearly 17 years behind bars, the last 13 on Death Row, then-Gov. George Ryan freed him, part of a dramatic and sweeping condemnation of the state's death penalty system. Saying he wanted to correct a "manifest injustice," the governor granted Patterson a pardon based on innocence.
Since his arrest, Patterson has claimed the police tortured him into confessing, allegations that authorities have denied for just as long. But Patterson did not sign the confession and there has never been any forensic evidence or eyewitness account linking him to the killings, all factors that led to the governor's decision.
Still, at the time of the murders, Patterson had blood on his hands and his conscience. By the time he was 21, he had shot and wounded a man and helped beat another senseless in the kangaroo court of gang justice. In jail, awaiting trial for murder, he stabbed a fellow inmate during a fight. His violence was directed at other young black men like himself, trapped in the circular firing squad of Chicago gang life.
But, he says, he never killed anyone.
"I'm still trying to decipher what happened," Patterson says. "How I ended up on Death Row fighting for my life."
The larger riddle, however, is what Patterson will do with the rest of his life. Learning to be free again is not easy, even for a smart man like Aaron Patterson, the son of a police lieutenant and a schoolteacher, a man with resources and supporters that most ex-cons can only dream about.
So far, activism and protest dominate his life. But in his rush to do some good, Patterson is spreading himself thin.
Laid-off Latino workers at a suburban discount store fighting to get their jobs back, he's there. "Drop Bush, Not Bombs" anti-war rally downtown, he's there. A march against police brutality in the sister cities of St. Joseph and Benton Harbor, Mich., he's there and he brings a whole caravan of people with him.
He can be charming one minute and abrasive the next. At the rally in St. Joseph he took the microphone and told a group of demonstrators sitting under a tree after the march: "This ain't no picnic. Get the [expletive] up."
A woman angrily confronted him about his raw language.
Later, he apologized.
"Sometimes," he says, "I get carried away."
Ready for combat
Not long after his release, Patterson was sitting alone in his mother's kitchen on the South Side, sipping a cup of coffee. Jo Ann Patterson walked into the room and, as she frequently does, gently touched her son on the shoulder. Sometimes she just needs to feel his face, his hand. Make sure she's not dreaming, that he's really home. But this night he leapt out of his chair.
"Don't sneak up on me," he scolded.
His mother can see that the younger of her two sons has not yet found his footing. Haunted by the past, uncertain about the present, too unsettled to plan much for the future, the slightest wind might pitch him over.
His parents separated while he was on Death Row. Today, he lives at his mother's South Shore home in a small bedroom off her kitchen. He shares the room with FuFu, his pet pit bull, born on the day he walked out of prison.
"I'm lucky," he says. "A lot of guys coming out of prison don't have a place to stay."
The walls of his room are as bare as a cell. But his desk is piled high with newspapers, political fliers and his fedoras--one black, one brown. The floor is carpeted with gym shoes, like a teenager's room. He wears business suits to lobby politicians and baggy jogging suits to talk with the guys on the block. The radio and portable TV in his room were brought home from prison. "I'm going to start my own Death Row museum," he says.
Jo Ann Patterson says she sees her son for about three minutes in the morning and three minutes at night, if she's still awake when he comes in. He has been in constant motion since his release.
She understood him running, running, running when he first got out. But it's been nearly a year. It's past time, his mother says, for her boy to slow down before he runs himself into the ground.
"Sometimes," his mother says, "it's like he's in a time warp, stuck at 21."
Bailing out a buddy
For months, Patterson has been trying to get his old friend, Nathson Fields, out of jail. He tells everyone he meets that he is going to raise the $100,000 in bond money that will spring Fields.
But nobody really believes him. They ask, where are you going to come up with that kind of money?
He tries to raise it a few dollars at a time, telling buddies to walk through the audience with a cardboard donation box after his speeches to church groups, peace activists and college kids. Finally, Patterson decides it is time to shut up and put up. "I don't ever want people to think I'm just a talker," he says.
He devises an extreme and risky plan. Using as collateral the $161,000 compensation payment he is expecting to get from the state for his wrongful conviction, Patterson obtains a short-term $100,000 loan from a New Jersey finance company, at an interest rate that would make Tony Soprano blush.
Patterson's lawyers and family caution against it. Plead. He puts his fingers in his ears. "He'd do it for me if the tables were turned," he says. "It's the Harriet Tubman code. Leave no man behind."
Patterson and Fields were once on Death Row together. But before that, when they were both on the streets, they pledged their allegiance to Jeff Fort, the founding father of the Blackstone Rangers street gang, which later became El Rukn.
Fields has been in Cook County Jail for five years awaiting a new trial in a gang-related double murder for which he and a co-defendant were sentenced to death. That 1986 conviction was overturned because the judge in the case took a $10,000 bribe to acquit the men. The judge instead convicted them after learning that he was under federal investigation.
On a May morning, just before Mother's Day, Patterson sets out to fulfill a vow to Fields and to himself.
First stop is the Bank One branch on Stony Island Avenue to pick up the check. Then on the way to the sprawling jail complex, Patterson passes a group of friends sitting on a porch in South Shore. "I'm fixing to bond Nat out," he shouts through his open car window. "Watch the news."
Patterson puts his thick address book on his lap. With one hand holding the wheel, he punches in the number for WGN-TV on his cell phone.
"Who's the assignment editor?" he asks. "My name is Aaron Patterson. I just got off Death Row. Forget the cat in the tree. I got some breaking news for you. It ain't every day one Death Row inmate bails out another Death Row inmate."
He flips through his book and calls several other television stations and the Chicago Defender. "This should be documented," he declares.
He has a long list of media contacts in his book. He had been calling or writing reporters long before he was released from prison, hoping to stay alive by keeping his case in front of the media.
His calls made, Patterson falls into nervous silence. Traffic is thick. There's too much time to think. Maybe they won't let Fields out. Maybe the check's no good.
When he walks up to the jail, a couple of TV crews and photographers are waiting for him.
With all the confidence and polish of a skilled politician, Patterson says, "I'd like to thank the corrupt criminal justice system for making this historic day possible."
It takes several hours for the paperwork to clear, but late that afternoon Fields walks out through the gates and into an embrace with his liberator.
Fields thanks him over and over.
"Ain't no problem," Patterson says. He's beaming, his eyes are moist. Now the whole world can see that Aaron Patterson isn't just a talker.
Someone hands Fields a cell phone. "What's this?" he asks.
"A phone," Patterson says, laughing.
Only a few months ago he had asked the same question. He thought a cell phone looked like some gizmo from "Star Trek." He wasn't sure what to do with it. Now, he never leaves home without it. Lately, he has started carrying a pair of phones, one on each hip.
"There's been a whole lot of changes out here," Patterson tells his friend. "Don't worry. We're going to get you caught up."
Altar boy to gang boss
It's nearly 11 p.m. when Patterson arrives home. Fields is with him. Patterson wants to show his mother that he got Fields out.
Jo Ann Patterson, in her pajamas, hugs Fields and begins to weep.
"Come on, Mom," Patterson says, his eyes watering again. "Take it easy. Don't hold him hostage. I told you, we're all going to come home."
Patterson was one of those kids who would leave the house alone in the morning and come back at dusk with three completely new friends, who haven't eaten all day, and, by the way, Mom, can they stay for dinner?
He grew up a few miles away in a brick bungalow at East 85th Street and Yates Avenue with a well-kept lawn in front and a garden in back. On Sundays his family worshiped at St. Bronislava Roman Catholic Church, where he and his brother were altar boys.
When the nearby steel mills shut down, a lot of their neighbors struggled. But thanks to the Chicago Police Department, Raymond Patterson Sr. always had a steady paycheck. For years, that allowed Jo Ann to stay home with the boys. When they got older she went back to school. She enrolled at Chicago State University, graduating in 1976. She became a public school teacher before moving on to work as an administrator at a business college in the Loop.
Having a cop and a teacher as parents made Aaron and his brother stand out from most of the other kids. Their father often left for work around 3 p.m. in his blue police shirt, then a white shirt as he moved up the ranks.
"There's a certain degree of pressure being the son of a police officer," says Raymond Jr., who is one year older than Aaron. "It was assumed you were a goody-goody. Plus we were going to Catholic school. We had to make it up in terms of toughness."
Aaron followed his big brother to De La Salle Institute, Mayor Richard M. Daley's alma mater. After he graduated, Raymond went straight to Washington University. Then he earned an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin. He now works for a pharmaceutical company in St. Louis.
The younger brother joined the National Guard. Initially, his parents were disappointed. Aaron was supposed to go to college. He was supposed to be somebody special. But he convinced them that it was a good idea. The military was going to pay for his college tuition.
He loved it and was going to make the military a career. He switched to the Army. Then, his mother says, he broke his ankle toward the end of basic training. He stepped in a hole playing a pickup game of football. He returned to Chicago on crutches and was later discharged.
He moved back in with his parents and enrolled at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "Never did see him study," his mother says. "Then the grades came. He didn't study."
His father protested, saying he wasn't going to take care of a grown man. Patterson and his best friend, Milton Bates, a.k.a. Ski Man, got their own place.
The Pattersons didn't hear from their son for weeks. Then one day he called and told them that he had taken the police exam. "I'm sure he did it to make his father happy," his mother says. He scored in the 97th percentile, his father told the court at his son's sentencing hearing years later.
But Patterson never got a chance to go to the academy. Around the time he got his test results, he was wanted for murder.
On the streets Patterson was "Ranger," the leader of the Apache Rangers, a small branch of the Blackstone Rangers, one of the city's most violent gangs. He fell in love with the excitement of the streets and saw the gang as a way to protect his friends and his neighborhood.
Raymond says he too ran the streets with his brother as a teen, but not for long. "For me the world was too small," he says. "I wanted to be out of there. My brother was content in being in the neighborhood."
Raymond would tell his brother, "You should be getting out of the neighborhood and instead you're sitting around talking about who got shot."
`Brother to brother'
Holding a cup of coffee bought with his Starbucks card, Patterson is driving to Michigan in a silver Mazda mini-van that screams soccer mom.
One of his passengers, Fred Hampton Jr., the son of the slain Black Panther Party leader, can't resist, accusing his friend of being "bourgeois."
"You have a Starbucks card and a van with a TV in it," says Hampton, who served several years in prison for an arson he says he did not commit. "Come on, brother, what's up with that?"
It's a used van, Patterson points out. He took over the payments from Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, a member of Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation. She used to visit Patterson when he was on Death Row.
"The van is nice and plain," Patterson says. "That way the police don't mess with us."
Today, the issue for Patterson is the police "messing with the people."
About 90 miles from Chicago, the streets of Benton Harbor, Mich., have erupted in rioting when a police chase ended with the death of a black motorcyclist. Patterson quickly organized a group to join the protest march there.
But revolutions don't run on air, Patterson says, so he has loaded up the back of his van with bottled water to sell to thirsty marchers. He has not looked for a job since his release. Instead, he has knitted together a living with honorariums from speaking engagements and with what he calls his hustles.
Peddling water at demonstrations is one hustle. Another is sports jerseys he gets from a guy in New York. He sells them from the back of his van, pulling over whenever he spots a hip-hop fan walking down the street.
He has to work on his business plan. He often gives the jerseys away to friends and their children.
Most of those friends are the same ones he had before prison. He refuses to shun his street brothers or turn his back on his old gang. And he has only good things to say about the man who started it all, Jeff Fort, imprisoned for more than a decade for a terrorism plot on behalf of Libya.
Patterson still is the same true believer he was as a youth, when he bought into all the brotherhood and nation-building rhetoric that accompanied gang life and the idea that it was a social movement, not a criminal enterprise.
"I didn't look at it as a gang," he says. "It was guys I grew up with. It was a movement. It just got sidetracked."
He says he continues to have influence within what he calls "the organization." Patterson gets cagey about his current status in the gang life. "I'm still in it and I'm not," he says.
He uses whatever power he has left, he says, to argue for change. He wants to turn foot soldiers into campaign volunteers, to turn dope dealers into legitimate workers.
So he spends a lot of time patrolling the streets, looking for people to help, problems to fix. One day, he spots some young guys loitering in the middle of the afternoon in front of a grocery store. They are the sons and nephews and little brothers of his friends. So he jumps out of the van to confront them, to save them from the gang violence that can erupt at any time.
"Didn't I tell you not to bunch up in one spot?" he asks. "I'll bust you up if I catch you out here again."
Patterson gathers the teens around him like a football coach.
"Y'all know Leroy ain't got no place to stay," he tells them, putting his hand on the boy's shoulder. "Y'all go in the crib and fix him something to eat. That's how we get down. That's brother to brother."
He's also been getting in the faces of young gangsters and telling them that they have to stop selling their stuff, especially around his mother's home.
He knows he has to offer an alternative, and among the ideas racing through his brain is starting up a landscaping and snow removal business. His plan is to hire, say, 50 guys from the neighborhood and "maybe then we can shut down some of these crack houses."
On the drive to Michigan, Patterson brings Hampton up to date. They talk about Patterson's plans but also the risks. He says he has had at least five "incidents" since he has been home.
The most dangerous occurred when Patterson and Ski Man Bates confronted a young gang member and told him he had to stop selling dope. The young "businessman" took exception to being bossed and said so. Patterson knocked him to the ground.
They were driving away, Patterson says, when a couple of shots whizzed past them. The young's man friend was shooting at them.
"Knuckleheads," Patterson tells Hampton in the mini-van, as he recalls his close call.
He measures them against his own revised values. The young brothers out here today act like they don't have an iota of respect for life, theirs or anybody else's.
They don't have any ethics, he complains. No scruples. No love for the community. All they care about is the almighty dollar, the bling-bling.
Things are going to change, he promises.
Sister Helen's plea
Patterson is on the move again, this time to the Far South Side to have dinner with Sister Helen Prejean, a Catholic nun and compassionate voice in the anti-death penalty movement. Her memoir about her work with the condemned, "Dead Man Walking," was turned into a movie. She's in town to give a speech. The nun and the former altar boy used to correspond when he was on Death Row.
As they sit down to eat, Patterson's cell phone rings.
"I can't talk right now," he tells the caller. "I'm with Sister Helen. Man, you know. The nun."
He apologizes for the interruption. His cell phone rings all the time, and he always answers it whether he's taking part in a news conference or attending a funeral.
"Do you have somebody you can talk to, somebody to help you sort things out?" Sister Helen asks.
"I talk to different people," he says. "But there ain't a lot of people I can talk to who ain't dope fiends now."
No, she says, does he have a therapist, a professional of some kind to talk to about his experiences on Death Row? Surely, he sees ghosts. Twelve men were executed while he was there. Some of them walked right past his cell on their way to die. Surely, he has demons that torment him about what has happened to him and what he has done.
She takes his face in her hands.
"I'm serious, Aaron," she says. "You've got to process what happened to you. You can't keep running."
"I hear you, sister," he says. "But I can't stay much longer. I've got another appointment downtown."
`House of Screams'
With a two-man film crew from Germany right behind him one afternoon this spring, Patterson pushes through the door of the low-slung building on the Far South Side that houses Area 2 police headquarters. It is where he was taken for questioning in the double murder case that sent him to Death Row.
Back then he was whisked into the station wearing handcuffs in the back of a police car, a detective on either side. "I'm not used to coming in the front door," Patterson jokes with the crew.
He strides up to the front desk, chest out, head high.
"I want to see the watch commander," he announces. "Tell him Aaron Patterson is here. I was a visitor here 17 years ago."
A detective passes by, leading a handcuffed prisoner up a flight of stairs.
"That's the interrogation room up there," he says, more quietly. "The House of Screams."
A lieutenant in a crisp white shirt comes out to see what Patterson wants.
"They want to film the interrogation room where I was tortured," Patterson tells him in a voice that carries through the large lobby.
The lieutenant stares at him, then says that could happen only with permission from the news affairs unit downtown.
"Now please step away from the desk so other people can come up," the lieutenant says.
"Yeah, right," Patterson says. "I can see there's a long line."
There is no one else waiting.
About 10 minutes later, the answer from downtown is no. Patterson pronounces the trip a success anyway.
"For them to know a European country is concerned about what's going on in this police station," he says, "it's a beautiful thing."
What happened to Patterson in that police station has always been in dispute. The authorities say nothing but good police work occurred as detectives tried to crack a double murder. Patterson and his attorneys say something much darker went on.
Whatever happened, it helped send Patterson to Death Row for 13 years for the murders of Vincent Sanchez, 73, and his wife, Rafaela, 62.
Everybody in the struggling section of South Chicago knew that the Sanchezes had all sorts of things for sale inside their home at 8849 S. Burley Ave.: TVs, radios, water heaters, maybe even guns.
Shortly before noon on April 19, 1986, neighbors called police to report something was wrong inside the house. A police officer entered through the kitchen. The floor was covered with dried beans from an overflowed pot on the stove--and a trail of blood.
Vincent Sanchez was found dead on the bathroom floor. He had been stabbed 25 times. Rafaela Sanchez was lying on the dining room floor in a blood-soaked beige nightgown. She too was dead from stab wounds.
Lt. Jon Burge, commander of the Area2 violent-crimes unit, arrived on the scene, and a short time later his detectives were rounding up suspects and witnesses, including a young man named DeEdward White. A few days later, White's cousin, Marva Hall, who was 16 at the time, told investigators that she had run into Patterson on the street the day after the Sanchez bodies were discovered.
She said Patterson was in a car with a friend and asked if she wanted to buy a shotgun and a chain saw. Then, according to her story, Patterson told Hall that her cousin was innocent and that he and some friends had killed the couple during a raid on the home looking for weapons. Hall has since recanted that story, saying prosecutors threatened her with jail if she did not cooperate. The authorities deny it.
The police already knew Patterson well. He was wanted in three cases of gang-related violence, including the brutal beating and pistol-whipping of a fellow gang member, an Apache Ranger suspected of stealing a gang gun. Awaiting trial on the murders, he pleaded guilty to two attempted murder charges and was convicted in a third.
About two weeks after the slayings, police found Patterson hiding in a friend's attic. He assumed he was wanted for the gang violence and couldn't believe he was being arrested for a double murder.
The truth is, Patterson expected to get slapped around a bit at the police station. That was just the way the game was played.
As he sat surrounded by detectives, crowded into the small room at Area 2, the lights suddenly went out. Then someone threw a typewriter cover over his face, he says, trying to suffocate him. He tried to bite through the heavy plastic, desperate for air.
At the same time, he says, he was being punched in the chest. The cover was yanked from his face, the lights went on and the detectives were back in their original places, pretending nothing had happened.
Then, he says, they did it again. After that he answered every question about the murders with "whatever you say."
An assistant state's attorney soon came into the interrogation room with Patterson's "confession" and gave it to him to read. He was left alone, chained to a steel hoop in the wall.
Then he saw a paper clip and had an idea: "I'll just scratch the truth out on this bench."
Patterson picked up the paper clip and unwound it, then scratched a message into the metal bench: "Aaron 4/30 I lie about murders. Police threaten me with violence. Slapped and suffocated me with plastic. No lawyer or dad. No phone. Sign false statement to murders."
But Patterson changed his mind about the confession. He didn't kill those people. Nothing was going to make him sign his name to a lie.
In 1993, Patterson's third year on Death Row, Burge was fired by the Chicago Police Department for his role in an unrelated beating at the stationhouse. Police and prosecutors maintain to this day that Patterson was not mistreated and voluntarily confessed.
There was never any physical evidence that Patterson was abused by police. He was not hospitalized and there were no obvious bruises when he appeared in court the next day.
Patterson had a co-defendant in the case, Eric Caine, who alleges he was beaten as well, and who was treated for a broken eardrum immediately after he confessed, records show. He was sentenced to life in prison, where he remains. He was spared the death penalty because he said in his confession that he fled when the killing started. He has since maintained he was never at the house and is innocent.
An internal police investigation found that torture and abuse were systematic and common under Burge and other officers. The report documented five dozen brutality cases. Special prosecutors are investigating whether there should be criminal charges.
There has been no reinvestigation of the Sanchez murders or of the murder cases involving the three other men pardoned in January by Ryan.
Dave Bayless, a spokesman for the Chicago Police Department, said that officials remain confident that Patterson and the others were guilty of the murders that sent them to Death Row.
"Those cases were investigated thoroughly initially," he said.
A warrior in the cell
In a sweltering cell in a prison on a hilltop in southern Illinois, Aaron Patterson stared at the walls and thought about the river.
Below him, during the sodden summer of 1993, the mighty floodwaters of the Mississippi raged, swallowing up farmlands and tiny towns, minor-league ballparks and cemeteries.
Lost in fear and frustration, Patterson was waiting for a sign. Finally, he thought, a higher power had heard his pleas from Menard Correctional Center.
Patterson prayed that the water would climb the hill and wash away Death Row, carrying him to freedom. "I was going to float all the way to the Gulf of Mexico," he says.
The river rose for weeks, then returned to its banks. And Patterson returned to his war inside the prison walls.
Believing he was innocent, seeing himself as a hostage and carrying himself as a warrior, he resisted relentlessly. He threw around his bitter words and his body wastes. "Sometimes the only way for you to get them to listen to you is to act the fool," he says.
He spent most of his time on Death Row in segregation. Instead of the bars of a regular cell that an inmate can see through, the segregation cells have a solid steel door that closes like a coffin. The prisoners are fed through a chuckhole.
Over the years, Patterson was slapped with about 125 yellow tickets for disciplinary violations. He had years and years to go in segregation at the time of his pardon. More than 30 of the tickets were for assaulting correctional officers.
Patterson's rage was so red-hot that even people sympathetic to his cause were afraid of getting burned. The Illinois Coalition Against the Death Penalty regularly sent visitors to the men on Death Row. In the early '90s, Mary L. Johnson was one of the volunteers. For her it was personal. Her son could have easily been on Death Row. Instead he was serving a sentence of natural life in another prison.
She tried to treat the men, the ones she knew were guilty and the ones like Patterson who she believed in her heart were innocent, just the same--like sons. Johnson says she was assigned to visit the segregation unit, and at first she balked.
"I didn't want to go back there," she says. "They were throwing urine."
But another member of the coalition told her Jo Ann Patterson's son was there, and that persuaded her to give it a try. Jo Ann Patterson was also a member of the coalition.
Johnson put her face against the steel door of Patterson's cell. There were dried feces on the walls and what else she couldn't be sure. She put on her mama-knows-best voice.
"You can't get people to come back here acting up," she told him. "People are afraid. You have to cool down. It's disgusting back here."
Over time he did calm down, at least with Johnson and a few others on the visiting team.
His mother was a frequent visitor, but his father came only once, Patterson recalls. Raymond Patterson Sr., who now lives in Illinois but outside Chicago, has called Aaron several times since his release, trying to set up a reunion, but they haven't been able to work out plans. Aaron is still bitter that his father didn't support him more.
For a time after her son's conviction, Jo Ann Patterson retreated from the world. But eventually she became a driving force in the movement to free Patterson.
Supporters unleashed a barrage of letters and pamphlets outlining his charges of torture and the weak evidence in the case. Patterson became the best known of a group of men called the Death Row 10, all of whom claimed to have been tortured by Burge and his men.
From his tiny cell, Patterson called most of the shots, writing long letters to his supporters with detailed instructions. Contact this reporter, that preacher. Go see this state representative or that congressman. Do civil disobedience. Raise some hell.
Finally, the momentum began to shift. Not just for Patterson, but for the entire population of Death Row, when Gov. Ryan declared a moratorium on the death penalty in 2000.
The TV cameras were there to record Patterson's release three years later. Out of bitter habit, Patterson fought back the tears he felt were trying to burst out of him.
But on his first day of freedom, his first glimpse of the Chicago skyline weakened his resolve. As he approached the city in a car crowded with family and friends, it looked like the sparkling skyscrapers had tumbled out of heaven and landed upright and perfect on Earth.
"It didn't look real," Patterson says.
The next day, Jan. 11, he went to work. Patterson spoke at an anti-war rally, then traveled to Northwestern University's law school to demand a face-to-face meeting with Ryan.
The governor was at the school, preparing to announce that he was commuting the death sentences of 167 men and women, when an aide rushed in.
"Governor, you can't go downstairs," Ryan recalls the aide breathlessly telling him. "Aaron Patterson is down there and he's raising hell."
"Get him and bring him up here," the governor said.
The former inmate came in. "I still got friends who are still in prison, who are innocent," Ryan said Patterson told him. "And nobody is doing anything about it."
Patterson had promised the men he had just left behind that he would plead for their pardons. And that's what Patterson did.
"After that," Ryan said, "he was a perfect gentleman."
Death Row `discount'
Someday, Patterson wants justice--and lots of money for his suffering. He has filed a $30 million lawsuit over his wrongful conviction.
But right now, all he's seeking is a discount.
"I just got off Death Row," he tells the attendant in the pay booth of a Loop parking garage a few months into his second shot at life. "Can I get the Death Row discount?"
Patterson is joking, but the attendant doesn't crack a smile.
OK. You can't blame a broke brother for trying, Patterson says, and he forks over the cash. After all, the Death Row discount has worked before. He got a couple of free dress shirts from a sympathetic salesman not long ago.
At a nightclub, when he tells an aspiring dancer-rapper he has been on Death Row, she gives him a wide smile. Her big break has just walked through the door. Next stop, Hollywood. She thinks he is from Death Row Records, the famous Los Angeles-based rap music label. You can hook a sister up, right?
"No," he says. "I'm from the Death Row where they kill people, not make records."
"I ain't never met anyone from Death Row before," she says.
"I bet you haven't," Aaron says. "There ain't too many of us walking around."
Patterson lost his girlfriend when he went to prison. He is seeing several women now, including Corrine Williams, 22, who is studying to become a medical office manager. They met about three months after his release. He had gone to Springfield to testify before a state committee about death penalty reform. Williams, who is from Chicago and is a death penalty opponent, drove down to attend the hearing.
Patterson likes her because he says she is good-looking, smart and has something he badly wants someday--children. She has two young sons, Dizhon, 6, and Donovan, 3. "We have an understanding, not a commitment," he says.
Patterson often baby-sits the boys, as he is doing in his mother's kitchen.
"You trying to start a new look?" he says to Donovan, whose shirt needs to be buttoned and tucked in. "The uncoordinated look?"
He buttons the little boy's shirt and gently squeezes his shoulder.
Donovan escapes Patterson's touch and turns on the television. A rabbit in a hunting outfit is blasting away.
"You ain't fixing to drive me crazy," Patterson snaps and turns the channel.
Donovan looks sad and Patterson bends down to look him in the eye. "I watched guys on Death Row watch cartoons all day," he says.
Patterson straightens up and turns the cartoons back on.
Fire and brimstone
Before addressing a group of ministers in the basement of a church on South Michigan Avenue, Patterson tells himself to be patient, to keep his temper in check. He wants their help. He has come to ask them for money to bail out of jail a young man charged with assaulting a couple of police officers during a confrontation near Cabrini-Green. "But this guy ain't as big as a peanut," Patterson says.
The man, Patterson says, has already attempted suicide in jail. It's a life-or-death situation. He tells the clergy he has pledges for much of the $15,000 bond. He can probably scratch together a couple of thousand more. So, he's about $2,500 short.
Patterson doesn't know the man. He just promised his family he would help. The ministers don't know the man or Patterson. One of their members who heard about Patterson's story invited him.
"I'm asking y'all," Patterson lectures, "to reach in your hearts. Follow the teaching of Jesus Christ. We know if he was here right now he'd be making a beeline to the Cook County Jail."
It's clear by their sour expressions the ministers don't like to be preached to. One of the older ministers, arms folded across his chest, clears his throat to speak. He delivers a sermon of his own.
"Young man," he says, "how you speak to people means more than anything else. Keep a cool head. Calm. Cool. I think you'll get more."
"Understand where I'm coming from," Patterson says, growing more agitated. "I got a chip on my shoulder about this whole system. I just want to know when is this stuff going to stop?"
A young minister steps in. He's having a hard time holding on to his own temper.
"We're being put on the defensive," he says. "If it goes any farther, you won't get our support."
Patterson finally erupts.
"We're no longer going to allow the churches to pimp us," he shouts. "I'm not going to kiss no tail for no bond money."
The young minister is beside himself. He has to be restrained by his colleagues of the cloth.
"You don't come in here and tell me what to do," he screams. "This is our meeting."
More heated words are exchanged, and Patterson storms out. On the sidewalk, he's still fuming when one of the ministers emerges from the church. The minister crosses the street, gets into a Lincoln Town Car and pulls into traffic.
"I see where your money goes, brother," Patterson shouts.
That night, Patterson's mother is waiting up for him. Someone from the church has called to complain about her son. The caller says that he is out of control, that he intimidates people into giving him money and that he still acts like a gangster. The call hurt him. He wasn't asking for the money for himself. He was trying to persuade the ministers to do the right thing or at least what he thought was the right thing.
"Mom and I argued about that for an hour," Patterson says later. "I'm a grown man. They didn't have to sic my mother on me."
His mother worries that he's turning people off. So many individuals and groups joined the effort to free him. She doesn't want to alienate anyone. He agrees. But there's something inside of him that snaps when an authority figure, say, a police officer or a preacher, tells him what to do or what not to do.
For 17 years, his life belonged to someone else. Now that he is free, no one tells Aaron Patterson what to do. No one tells him when he can go outside and feel the sun. No one tells him when he can eat or sleep or die.
Face-off with Devine
His speech is over, and Cook County State's Atty. Richard Devine is taking questions at Northeastern Illinois University. His bodyguards are barely paying attention, enjoying their lunch, when Aaron Patterson walks to the microphone and says he's from Death Row.
One of the bodyguards pushes his plate aside and makes his way across the room. He stands next to Patterson. The other guard takes a position close to the state's attorney.
Patterson asks what Devine is planning to do about wrongful convictions. Devine says of course he is concerned about the issue, but he is not going to talk about individual cases. "We are not going to do something for headlines," he adds.
As Devine leaves, Patterson hands him a note that says, "Need to meet with you ASAP to discuss wrongful conviction cases involving Latinos and blacks."
With a tight smile, Devine says, "Thank you, Mr. Patterson."
There are no fireworks. No angry words. Patterson steps aside and watches Devine and his bodyguards walk to their car. Patterson is disappointed in himself. "I hope he doesn't think I'm soft," he says.
Not long after he got out of prison, Patterson had tried to get Devine's attention by setting up a tea set on a card table outside the state's attorney's home. He was hoping Devine would join him for a discussion of criminal justice in Cook County, but Patterson went home without a meeting.
Now that he finally got face to face with the top prosecutor, Patterson wonders if he should have ranted and raved, reverted to his protest style. Maybe then he would have gotten more than a curt "Thank you, Mr. Patterson."
Then again maybe he did the right thing. Everybody has been telling him to be patient. But being cool didn't get him out of prison. Being calm won't fix what's wrong with this world.
"Sometimes I think I want to go back to Death Row," he says later. "Man, it's crazy out here."
But he thinks he's learning. His big gamble in bailing Nathson Fields out of jail has paid off so far. He got his state compensation check for his wrongful conviction just in time to repay the loan company without any penalties.
Give him an A for that. "I have never seen a former Death Row inmate do more for the people he's left behind than Aaron Patterson," says David Protess, a journalism professor at Northwestern University, who has helped exonerate several wrongfully convicted condemned men.
Patterson's grade on his other plans is an incomplete. He hasn't stopped the drugs or the violence, and even his buddy, Ski Man, has been shot at, a bullet grazing the back of his head in a close encounter one afternoon. He hasn't been able to get his landscaping business off the ground or find jobs for the young men on the corner.
But he keeps throwing dreams and ideas against the wall, and one of these days, he's confident, something is going to stick.
Six months to the day since he was released from Death Row, Patterson turns 39.
He doesn't know what to think or feel about it. Satisfaction? Relief? Guilt? Or maybe some other emotion he can't put a name to. One thing he doesn't feel is joy, even though it is his first birthday as a free man in 18 years. So many other brothers are rotting in their graves or prison.
Patterson never expected to live so long, that's for sure. When he was coming up, ducking bullets in the street-gang battles of his South Side youth, he figured anything past the age of 21 was icing. A day. An hour. Anything. Break out the Canadian Mist.
Then the state of Illinois wanted to kill him too. No way was middle age in Aaron Patterson's fortune cookie.
But here he is on the rainy evening of July 10, 2003, free, alive and uncertain. He isn't sure how to celebrate or if he wants to.
In the end, he marks the occasion with a quiet steak dinner with his mother at a suburban restaurant. Patterson doesn't want to go to any of his usual spots in the city. He doesn't tell his mother the reason, but he is afraid somebody might be gunning for him, not for doing wrong like in the old days, but for trying to do right in his worry-about-the-consequences-later way.
In the last few days, Patterson has been driving through the neighborhood, telling the drug dealers to stop pushing their poison. He came off like he was their father or, even worse, like he was a cop. They weren't in the mood to hear him. That surprised him and hurt his pride.
At the restaurant he is unusually quiet. He picks at his food. Then a man at the next table recognizes him from television.
"I know you," the man says. "You're that brother from Death Row."
"That's me," Patterson says, nodding. "Live from Death Row."
The man starts questioning him about life on Death Row. Patterson tells him that what "tripped me out" was how calm and cool guys were when the execution squad came to get them. They just went along. They didn't resist.
"If they came for me," he says, "they were going to have to kill me to kill me."
Then Patterson turns back to his table. His mother pats his hand and tells him, "Happy birthday."
"Thanks, Mom," he says.
And for the first time since he sat down, Aaron Patterson smiles.Copyright © 2015, CT Now