Jo Anne Patterson talks about having a son on death row

"It's like becoming a prisoner yourself"

Aaron Patterson is on death row in Illinois for a crime he didn't commit.

He was sentenced to death in 1989 - based on an unsigned "confession" that police wrote for him and one witness who later recanted her testimony.

Aaron was the victim of police torture at the hands of Lt. Jon Burge, who was later fired from the Chicago Police Department for torturing more than 40 Black men into false confessions.

Death Row victims of Burge's torture have joined together to form the Death Row Ten.

Noreen McNulty spoke with Aaron's mom, Jo Anne Patterson, who has been fighting for her son for more than 11 years.

How did you find out your son was arrested?

My mom told me she got a call from Aaron. He said was at the police station and had been arrested for murder. As soon as he said, "murder," the cops took the phone away from him.

Then there was a newspaper article in the Chicago Tribune that indicated that Aaron had been arrested for the murder of a couple, the Sanchezs.

I was always naive with the law-thinking that if you didn't do anything wrong, don't worry about it, you're safe, and things will work themselves out. So it's been an awakening.

When we first talked to Aaron, he said, "They beat me up." But in the neighborhood, when a person gets arrested, you get beat up.

We didn't realize how seriously Aaron was beaten, how he had fainted, and how he could have died in that room. They were literally choking him with a plastic bag.

Jon Burge has nine other victims on death row. One lady, Mrs. Kitchen-her son was tortured. He was hit in the groin with a telephone book. Another is Madison Hobley. His case his similar to Aaron's. They "lost" evidence in that case, too.

When did you start to organize to free Aaron?

For the first five or six years he was on death row, I was just living in the closet. I was trying to walk around in this closet with this elephant in there with me. I was always bumping into this elephant. You don't know what to do, but you still have to live your life and do the things you have to do in order to survive.

So I talked to my son. He told me about [the police watchdog group] Citizens Alert, and they listened.

It gives you the strength to get out and talk about the case. As a consequence, you don't feel as though you're in it by yourself.

What's visiting Aaron like?

You drive there, and you don't know if your car is going to get searched. If they find anything - something like a fingernail file with an edge on it - they can say, "You have to go back, it's a weapon."

After you go in, you have to sign in and show a picture ID. You have to be on the visiting list. You're searched. You're assigned to a booth, and Aaron is on the other side of the booth. In between us, there is Plexiglas. He's handcuffed to a chain around his waist and chained to the stool.

It's like you become a prisoner yourself.

What's it like to have a son on death row?

It's horrid. It's horrendous. It's something you don't talk about socially or in general, casual conversation.

Just think about being stuck in the bathroom - one day times how many years? Only one hour a day outside of this bathroom. Let's say the tub is your bed. Then there's the commode and then the face bowl. That's the size of his cell.

I miss his smile. He likes to joke, and I like to joke.

I miss him bringing home chicken wings. He introduced me to chicken wings. It's just - a lot of things I miss about him.

What can people do to help Aaron?

Donate some money, because we want everyone to get on the bus to go to Springfield for Aaron's upcoming hearing. We want to show that there are people out here watching the Illinois Supreme Court and what they're doing.

We want to fill the courtroom and spill out onto the rotunda and onto the steps.

The Campaign to End the Death Penalty is organizing for Aaron Patterson and the Death Row Ten. For a fact sheet and petition, write to the Campaign at P.O. Box 25730, Chicago, IL 60625. T-shirts and buttons are available for purchase as well.