Aaron Patterson

Aaron Patterson in November 2003. (Photo: Jennifer Linzer)

Aaron Patterson in November 2003. (Photo: Jennifer Linzer)

A tortured path to death row

Aaron Patterson was sentenced to death in 1989 for the murder of an elderly couple, Vincent and Rafaela Sanchez, found stabbed to death three years earlier in their home on the south side of Chicago.

Patterson's conviction rested primarily on a confession obtained by a group of south side police officers later shown to have engaged in systematic torture of suspects in scores of criminal cases. Immediately after signing the confession, Patterson used a paper clip he found to scratch into a metal bench: "Police threaten me with violence . . . Slapped and suffocated me with plastic . . . Signed false statement to murders."

Among officers personally involved in obtaining the alleged confession was Jon Burge, then a lieutenant and later the commander in Police Area 2. Two Cook County assistant state's attorneys, Kip Owen and Peter Troy, were involved in Patterson's interrogation and the taking of the confession, although they were not alleged to have taken part directly in the torture.

The only purported corroboration of Patterson's confession was the testimony of Marva Hall, a cousin of an alternative suspect in the case. Hall, who was 16 at the time of the crime, testified that Patterson had admitted to her that he committed the crime. The specifics of her allegation, however, were at odds with the facts of the crime. Years later, Hall signed an affidavit saying she had fabricated her testimony initially to protect her cousin. She said she attempted to recant before testifying, but changed her mind after Assistant State's Attorney Jack Hynes threatened her with jail.

Based on Hall's initial allegation, Patterson was arrested 11 days after the victims' bodies were found. Four hours after his arrest, Patterson signed a statement. He was then indicted for the crime, which qualified for the death penalty both because more than one person had been murdered and because the crime apparently had occurred during the commission of a felony.

Before trial, Patterson filed a motion to suppress his statement on the ground that it had been coerced, but Cook County Circuit Court Judge Arthur Cieslik denied the motion. The case was transferred to Judge John E. Morrissey after Cieslik retired. At trial, Patterson testified that he had signed the statement after several hours of interrogation, during which he was intermittently beaten and smothered with a plastic typewriter cover before acquiescing.

Patterson said that after he promised to confess he was then left alone for about an hour, during which he etched the torture allegation into the bench. When an officer brought Assistant State's Attorney Owen into the room, Patterson said he asked to speak to Owen alone and the officer left. Patterson said he then told Owen he had been tortured and demanded an attorney. Owen summoned the officer and left. The officer then allegedly threatened Patterson with further torture, until he finally agreed to sign a statement drafted by Assistant State's Attorney Troy. The officer involved was not named at the trial, but later was identified as Burge.

At the conclusion of the trial, the jury promptly returned a verdict of guilty and proceeded to find no evidence in mitigation sufficient to preclude imposition of the death penalty. Morrissey sentenced Patterson accordingly, and the Illinois Supreme Court affirmed the conviction and death sentence in 1992.

The Supreme Court gave short shrift to Patterson's torture claim, even though by this time abundant evidence had emerged that Burge and his men had used torture to extract confessions in scores of cases during the 1970s and 1980s. In fact, five years before denying Patterson's appeal, the Supreme Court had ordered a new trial for Andrew Wilson in the face of incontrovertible medical and photographic evidence that Burge and his men had tortured Wilson and his brother, Jackie, to confess to the murder of two Chicago police officers.

In an ensuing federal civil rights case, a jury had found that the City of Chicago had a de facto policy allowing police to physically abuse suspects in cases in which officers were killed or injured. Moreover, in 1991, the year before Patterson lost his appeal, the Chicago Police Department's Office of Professional Standards had suspended Burge and two of his underlings in the wake of torture allegations.

The month after Patterson lost his appeal, U.S. District Court Judge Milton I. Shadur ordered the release of a secret Chicago Police Department internal report, prepared in 1990 by the department's Office of Professional Standards, cataloging more than 50 instances of "methodical" and "systematic" torture involving the Burge crew. Specific officers were named in 35 of the cases, and Burge personally was named in more than half of those. A month after Shadiur ordered release of the report, the Chicago Police Board formally fired Burge.

Around this time, G. Flint Taylor, Jr., one of the attorneys who had been instrumental in proving the torture in the Wilson case six years earlier, became Patterson's attorney. Taylor filed a petition for post-conviction relief asking Judge Morrissey for an evidentiary hearing on Patterson's torture allegations in light of the OPS report. Morrissey denied the petition, declaring that "any nexus between Area 2 Chicago Police Department headquarters' alleged systemic torture of people and Aaron Patterson is highly tenuous at best."

Taylor appealed and, in 2000, the Illinois Supreme Court recognized that "substantial new evidence supports defendant's claim that his confession was the result of police brutality" and ordered Morrissey to hold the requested hearing. Morrissey and the Cook County State's Attorney's Office, however, managed to stall the hearing seemingly indefinitely.

Exasperated attorneys led by Locke E. Bowman, of the Macarthur Justice Center at the University of Chicago Law School, demanded appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate the Burge allegations. In April 2002, Presiding Judge Paul E. Biebel, of the Criminal Division of the Cook County Circuit Court, granted the request, holding that State's Attorney Dick Devine had a conflict of interest because, while in private practice before he was elected in 1996, he had represented Burge.

Taylor, meanwhile, had filed a petition with the Illinois Prisoner Review Board requesting a pardon based on innocence for Patterson. On January 10, 2003, Governor George N. Ryan granted that request and Patterson, one of 14 men sent to death row based on confessions obtained by the Burge crew, was freed.

Case Data

Jurisdiction: Cook County, Illinois
Date of crime: Prior to April 19, 1986, when victims' bodies were discovered
Date of arrest: April 30, 1986
Charge: First-degree murder
Sentence: Death
Release date: January 10, 2003
Months wrongfully incarcerated: 212
Date of birth: June 10, 1964
Age at time of arrest: 21
Gender: Male
Race: African American
Age(s) of victim(s): 73 and 62
Gender of victim(s): 1 male, 1 female
Race of victim(s): Latino
Defendant's prior felony record:
Known factors leading to wrongful conviction: Alleged confession
Did an appellate court ever affirm conviction? Yes
Exonerated by: Gubernatorial pardon
Compensation for wrongful imprisonment: Pending

— Rob Warden