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He's Out of Prison, but He Isn't Exactly Free

Illinois' governor pardoned convicted murderer Aaron Patterson, calling him a victim of 'manifest injustice.' But Patterson refuses to forgive.

November 02, 2003|Sharon Cohen | Associated Press Writer

CHICAGO — He slouches restlessly, waiting to speak about the ghosts of his past to college students who have gathered to watch a documentary about police brutality.

When the film is over, Aaron Patterson comes forward to offer a personal epilogue.

In some ways, it should be a happy one.

Instead of counting the days on death row from a 6-by-9 cell, Patterson is a free man -- thanks to an extraordinary gubernatorial pardon that declared him a victim of a "manifest injustice."

But on this day at the University of Chicago, Patterson is not in a forgiving mood.

He's thinking about his 17 years behind bars, most on death row, despite repeated claims of innocence and accusations of police torture that won him international support.

"None of these cats -- the mayor, the superintendent of police, the Cook County state's attorney -- will get any sleep on this watch unless they say they made a mistake," he vows, his voice rising, his eyes flashing.

Nearly a year after he walked out of prison as part of a dramatic emptying of Illinois' death row, Aaron Patterson refuses to fade away or forget.

In the months since, he has crisscrossed the city as if it were a giant prison cell, popping up at rallies, schools, protest marches -- anyplace he can to talk about other people's injustices or his own.

Although he is free to navigate a world that he could only dream of a year ago, life on the outside has held many frustrations, from bills coming due to promises not kept. Bitterness lingers with Patterson like a bad taste.

"They took 17 years out of my life," he said. "I should get at least 17 years of anger."

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He steers his silver Mazda van past rusted, shuttered steel mills on the city's far South Side, toward a weathered frame house.

"That's the place that got me 17 years," he said.

It's the home where an elderly couple who allegedly fenced stolen goods were stabbed 34 times in 1986 -- a double murder that put Patterson on death row.

This block, like so many in the neighborhood, is filled with memories. Patterson, now 39, points out the Catholic school that he attended, the church where he was an altar server, the field where he played Little League.

The son of a police lieutenant and a schoolteacher, Patterson was groomed for success. He was a trophy-winning athlete and a graduate of good schools. He seemed destined to take the college-career-family path.

He enlisted in the National Guard, took the police exam, enrolled in the University of Illinois.

But he preferred being in a gang.

"I'd seen the street life ... and then I'd seen the side that's supposed to be law-abiding citizens, and I didn't see the difference," he offered as an explanation. "I just didn't respect the status quo."

As a leader of the Apache Rangers, Patterson beat people up, sometimes viciously. He soon had a long rap sheet for gang activities that included attempted murder.

"I just didn't turn the other cheek," he now says.

His record and reputation made him a candidate for questioning in the double murder.

But what happened in a police interrogation room would be scrutinized for the next 17 years -- and continues to be debated today despite Patterson's pardon.

The man in charge of Area 2's violent crimes unit was Lt. Jon Burge, a beefy cop with a menacing reputation who was fired in 1993 after investigators determined that he had used excessive force to squeeze a confession from a suspect.

Burge's critics claim that he also wired suspects to a device called a "Tucker telephone" and cranked electric shocks into them. They allege that he and other police officers beat suspects, subjected them to mock Russian roulette and chained them to hot radiators.

A report by a police investigatory agency in 1990 found that "abuse did occur and that it was systematic" at Area 2. A special prosecution team is investigating accusations from about 90 people who have directly or indirectly alleged brutality by Burge or officers working with him.

Burge, who has moved to Florida, has denied torturing anyone. He has not been charged.

Patterson claims that during 25 hours of questioning, police cuffed him to the wall, turned off the lights, punched him in the chest and nearly smothered him by holding a plastic typewriter cover tightly over his face. When he wouldn't confess, police repeated the torture, he says.

Between grillings, he claims, Burge came in, placed his gun on the table and warned him that if he didn't cooperate, he'd get something far worse.

Patterson says he was determined to leave a record if he were killed and, when left alone during one break, he used a paper clip and crudely scrawled a message on a metal bench.

"I lie about murders," it said. "Police threaten me with violence. Slapped and suffocated me with plastic. No lawyer or dad. No phone.... Aaron."

He never signed a statement, but prosecutors said they had an oral confession.

A jury convicted him. He was on his way to death row.

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