CHICAGO (FinalCall.com) – The path toward justice for Aaron Patterson took a detour July 29 with the delivery of a guilty verdict in his recent trial on charges of drug and weapons violations.
Co-counsel on the defense Paul Camarena informed The Final Call that an appeal is planned on the grounds of reports from psychiatrists that Mr. Patterson suffers from PTSD–a result of withstanding torture in the 80s, compounded with 17 years behind bars, not knowing whether he was going to be executed for a crime he did not commit.
“No one ever doubted his ability to understand the proceedings, but he was not able to work with his attorneys,” Atty. Camarena explained of the two-prong criterion to determine whether a client is fit to stand trial. “What happened in court was a direct result of those illnesses,” he added, referring to objections by Mr. Patterson, which on one occasion actually led to a physical fight with the lead counsel on the case, Tommy Brewer. “These major episodes in court prejudiced him in the jury’s mind.”
Justice delayed is justice denied
After Mr. Patterson was arrested in 1986 for allegedly murdering a couple, he was bound, beaten and suffocated during hours of interrogation aimed at forcing a confession. While in custody, he found a paper clip and scratched a message into a 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.”
In 1989, he was sentenced to death row. After spending 13 years on death row, and 17 years in prison, for a crime he did not commit, he received a pardon in January 2003 by then-governor George Ryan, who also declared a moratorium on the death penalty in the state of Illinois as one of his last acts in office.
“In April of 1986, Aaron Patterson was tortured by Area 2 Violent Crimes detectives, under the direct supervision and with the active participation of Commander (Jon) Burge,” Gov. Ryan explained at a press conference announcing his pardon of Mr. Patterson and three other men. “The record in Mr. Patterson’s case shows that he was one of the last of the approximately 60 known victims who have alleged torture by Chicago Police detectives at Area 2 Police Headquarters from 1972 to 1986.”
During his remarks, Gov. Ryan informed that “much of the evidence of this systemic Area 2 torture and abuse had not emerged at the time of Mr. Patterson’s trial in 1989.” Evidence that had emerged since his trial included the recanting of testimony of the 16-year-old witness who said Mr. Patterson made an admission to her; no physical or forensic evidence at the crime scene to link him to the murders; fingerprints at the crime scene do not match his; and an affidavit that a man who was the acquaintance of the victims committed the crimes and subsequently committed a similar crime.
“It was on the basis of this evidence, as well as the incompetence of his trial lawyers that the Illinois Supreme Court sent Mr. Patterson’s case back to the Cook County courts for a new hearing into whether this evidence requires that Mr. Patterson receive a new trial a year ago, There clearly has, however, been no rush to do justice,” Gov. Ryan continued in his remarks.
“Here we have four more men who were wrongfully convicted and sentenced to die by the state for crimes the courts should have seen they did not commit. … Thy are perfect examples of what is so terribly broken about our system. These cases call out for someone to act. They call out for justice. They call out for reform.”
In June 2003, Mr. Patterson filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Chicago, the Chicago Police Department and Cook County State Attorney’s Office, among others, seeking $30 million in compensation for his torture, a case that is still pending. He refused a settlement offer of $4 million from the city. Yet, on August 5, 2004–just weeks before Lt. Burge was scheduled to appear for his deposition–Mr. Patterson was picked up by the police on the weapons and drug charges, in what his supporters suggest is a backlash to his federal lawsuit. The arrest concluded a five-month sting operation from the U.S. attorney’s office that included an undercover informant and wiretapping.
Pandora’s box opened
Attorney Demetrus Evans, the first federal defender to take Mr. Patterson’s case the day after his arrest last year, recounted her efforts to effectively represent her client, despite a series of frustrations: denials of her motions, events that appeared to indicate to her behind-the-scenes conversations and decisions to which she was not privy, her client being forcefully removed from his cell to appear in court despite his request not to appear in court one day, “purposeful omissions” from court transcripts–all of which led to her walking out of the courtroom, and eventually being removed from the case. However, she maintains, that the motion to withdraw her as lead attorney stems from her reputation of being a “fighter.”
“Some of it was stupidity and some of it was pure ignorance. Some of it, I firmly believe, was just plain hatred,” she shared.
She recalled a line of questioning by the prosecution during a hearing to discuss one element of Aaron’s defense, wherein he stated that the government’s informant put himself in harm’s way. According to Atty. Evans, when the prosecution asked if he meant the informant would be harmed by him, Mr. Patterson said the harm is coming from the government, and asked him if he was not familiar with the El Rukn trial?
“He talked about these witnesses and how witnesses were set up with prostitutes, and how they gave them money. The things that he brought out, you could just hear a penny drop on the carpet. I didn’t know it and I had no idea that Aaron knew it and that it was going to come out then. But when he started talking about it, you can believe that the courtroom was packed,” she said. “People were going out and calling on their cell phones and almost every supervisor in the U.S. attorney’s office was in the courtroom. So, I knew, oh my gosh, we are opening up a can of worms here, that have been sleeping for a long time and people don’t want it woken up. Nobody wanted to hear about it. It was making me cringe.”
She unsuccessfully attempted to cut short the prosecution line of questioning. “I don’t know if Chris (Niewoehner) just didn’t know or if he wanted to see how much Aaron knew about the U.S. attorney’s office in this district and how they prosecute,” she said, “and he knew a lot. He knew a lot of dirty things.”
A chilling coincidence
“We cannot let them slaughter this soldier in silence,” implored Fred Hampton Jr., chairman of the Prisoners of Conscience Committee (POCC), who also stated for the record that Mr. Patterson has been made the Chairman of Defense for the POCC.
Not only did he use his $100,000 of the compensation received along with his 2003 pardon to bond out of prison Nathson Fields, who spent time on death row with him, but within his year of freedom, Mr. Patterson grew into a frontline community leader and activist, running for local political office, and campaigning for the Anti-Terrorism Bill against police terrorism.
The Aaron Patterson Defense Committee, along with other dedicated supporters from the community, said they are determined to continue the fight for his freedom, despite their experiences of harassment in the courtroom, some over certain articles of dress that included army-fatigue pants, a t-shirt of Dr. Martin Luther King, and a t-shirt with the picture of Chairman Fred Hampton Sr. and the words, “You can kill a revolutionary, but you can’t kill the revolution.” Delores Quinn, a 58-year-old diabetic, charged that she was forcefully pulled out of her seat and out of the courtroom because she did not get up fast enough, due to her severely swollen foot and ankle, when everyone was ordered out the court. Supporters contend their mistreatment only reflects the unfair treatment that Aaron Patterson received in court.
“It is so disheartening, the way the system has tracked him, gone after him and got him off the streets,” lamented Mr. Fields. “We lost a great leader. He was the type of guy who would help anybody. It is a travesty.”
Sentencing for Mr. Patterson is scheduled for Dec. 2. Atty. Camarena told The Final Call that, because he would be in Tanzania in November, Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer set the sentencing for the first week in December.
Originally, the sentencing was announced in court for Dec. 4, which turned out to be a Sunday and a chilling coincidence–it is the date when police assailed the Chicago headquarters of the Black Panthers with 98 rounds of bullets in an early morning raid in 1969, assassinating Chairman Fred Hampton and Defense Captain Mark Clark. Laying in the bed next to Chairman Fred Sr. was Akua Njeri, who was eight months pregnant with their son, Fred Jr.
Ms. Njeri, chair of the December 4th Committee, has also worked with the Aaron Patterson Defense Committee to free him. One day, while outside the courtroom, she told The Final Call that she was surrounded by several U.S. Marshalls and escorted upstairs in an elevator to a floor where nearly 15 other officers were standing in a hallway. She said she was informed that she had made a threat against the U.S. attorney’s office.
Randall Samborn, spokesperson for the U.S. attorney’s office declined to comment on the alleged threat. John O’Malley, of the press office for the U.S. Marshalls Office, confirmed that Ms. Njeri was brought upstairs for an interview, but she refused to make any comment. He said she was subsequently escorted out of the building and banned from entering the building.
A week after the incident, approximately 40 law enforcement agents, who witnesses say identified themselves as FBI agents, came to her house, blocking off the streets at 7 a.m. with bullet-proof vests and dogs, Ms. Njeri said, adding that they questioned her on Aaron Patterson, her support of his case, and the supposed threat that she made against the prosecution.
“This whole process has been to intimidate people and stop them from supporting Aaron Patterson. I love Aaron, as a mother. He fought for our people and he continues to fight. We have to work harder,” she insisted full of emotion. “I don’t care how scared we are, how tired we are. We need a groundswell of support all over the country, demanding his freedom.”
Aaron Patterson, #21664424
Metropolitan Correctional Ctr.
71 W. Van Buren
Chicago, Illinois 60605
(To contact the Aaron Patterson Defense Committee, call (773) 250-7229.)