On Death Row, Aaron Patterson kept his birthday a secret.
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.