Image: Aaron Patterson
Charles Bennett  /  AP file
Aaron Patterson, a condemned prison inmate whose story of being tortured by police helped prompt a governor to set him free in a historic rebuke of capital punishment, was just another inmate in an orange jumpsuit waiting to be sentenced on weapons and drug charges.
updated 7/24/2007 12:09:17 AM ET 2007-07-24T04:09:17

Aaron Patterson’s account of being falsely convicted of two murders and tortured by police helped persuade a governor to set him free and empty Illinois’ death row.

In 2003, he walked triumphantly out of prison, a symbol of a badly broken criminal justice system and a champion for death penalty opponents worldwide.

But on Monday, the 43-year-old was just another inmate in an orange jumpsuit waiting to be sentenced on weapons and drug charges. He sat quietly as a string of supporters, including actor and rapper Mos Def, told the judge of his good character.

“To my family and to many people, he truly is a hero,” community activist Stephanie Weiner testified.

Weiner’s testimony came three days after Patterson was dragged yelling and kicking from the courtroom.

“I done many great things in this community,” he hollered Friday, angrily denouncing the judge and the legal system he claims are railroading him again.

Weiner suggested Patterson, who could be heading back to prison for decades, might have been set off by court officials’ use of a phrase common at sentencing hearings: career criminal.

30-year term
Prosecutors seek a 30-year term for Patterson, claiming he coordinated gang activities from prison. The hearing was to continue Tuesday.

In 2003, then-Gov. George Ryan pardoned Patterson and three other men because he did not believe they were guilty, and commuted to life in prison the sentences of all 167 inmates on death row.

In a speech that made headlines worldwide, Ryan said he was convinced Patterson was innocent. Patterson had maintained his innocence for the 17 years he was in prison — 13 of those on death row.

The governor recounted Patterson’s torture at the hands of Chicago police, how they threw a plastic typewriter cover over his head to suffocate him and how they beat him. And he told of a defiant Patterson, who when left alone, took a paper clip and scrawled out a message about what was happening to him.

“Listen to these chilling words,” Ryan said. “’I lie about murders, police threaten me with violence slapped and suffocated me with plastic ... signed false statement to murders.”’

Activist in action
Patterson vowed to spend his life exposing corruption and police misconduct. And he made it clear he would not forget the men still behind bars who, he said, did not deserve their fate.

Hours after his release, he was meeting with Ryan. He pleaded with the governor to reduce the sentences of some other inmates.

And he did what he did in prison. He wrote letter after letter. He made call after call to lawyers, supporters and others, pressing for help for those still behind bars.

He gave speeches on police corruption and capital punishment, but also on issues such as the war in Iraq. He sued city and county officials who sent him to death row and refused a $4 million settlement offer from the city.

He made headlines when he took out a $100,000 loan, using money he expected from the state for wrongfully convicting him, to post bond for a former gang leader he had known since their days on death row.

The next year he campaigned for a seat in the Illinois House, using current and former gang members as his campaign staff. He lost badly.

“What drove him was this feeling of all those lost years and wanting to change things when he got out,” said one of his lawyers at the time, Flint Taylor. “He wanted to change the world overnight.”

'An unbroken string of crime'
Authorities did not believe Patterson’s talk about leaving gang life. They insisted he went to prison a vicious gang leader, helped run the gang from his cell and kept it up when he walked out.

Investigators arrested him in 2004 and accused him of brokering heroin sales to government witnesses, buying marijuana and buying a machine pistol and other weapons. Patterson said he was just trying to expose police corruption.

“A review of the last 20 years of Patterson’s life reveals an unbroken string of crime and violence,” they wrote in court papers after a jury convicted him in July 2005.

While cross-examining Weiner on Monday, prosecutors pointed out that Patterson appeared at a news conference with her on the same day he was recorded making a drug deal.

Still, Patterson’s supporters look past that evidence to the powerful symbol they say he still is.

Mos Def, who met Patterson five years ago at a symposium, called the former death row inmate “a good man” and said he doesn’t believe he’s guilty of the most recent charges, either.

“He’s definitely an asset to the community,” he testified. “He cares a great deal for his people.”

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