Meet The Death Row 10: Aaron Patterson Keeps Fighting

"The State Wants To Let Him Die"

By: Noreen McNulty

The Death Row 10 are prisoners on Illinois death row who were beaten and tortured by former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge and his detectives. In 1993, Burge was forced into taking early retirement, but he and his cronies were never charged. Burge now spends his time fishing on his boat in Florida!

In the summer of 1998, the Death Row 10 decided to become a group and asked the Campaign to End the Death Penalty to help them organize.

Cook County State’s Attorney Dick Devine would like nothing better than to keep the issue of torture covered up. But organizing around the issue has produced growing local and national attention for the Death Row 10, who have been featured in stories in the Chicago Tribune and on the television news program "60 Minutes II." Four have now won evidentiary hearings.

The New Abolitionist is profiling each of the Death Row 10 in upcoming issues so that our readers will get to know their individual stories.


Since his arrest in 1986, Death Row 10 member Aaron Patterson has been fighting relentlessly for justice and struggling to prove his innocence. Aaron has spent nearly 13 years on Illinois death row for a crime he did not commit. Aaron was bound, beaten and suffocated by Chicago cops at Area 2 Headquarters.

During a 25-hour police interrogation, officers repeatedly pulled a plastic hood over Aaron’s head, threatening to suffocate him. When suffocation didn’t yield a confession from Aaron, Lt. Jon Burge entered the room and threatened him with a gun.

If Aaron ever tried to reveal what happened, Burge said, "It’s your word against our word. And who are they going to believe, you or us?" But Burge’s threat didn’t deter Aaron. While in custody, he scratched a message into a police station 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." Despite the torture, Aaron never signed the confession police wrote for him.

For years, the courts rejected Aaron’s appeals. But now, as Aaron’s case and the issue of police torture have come under increasing public scrutiny, it looks as if Aaron could soon win a new trial. Last year, the Illinois Supreme Court ordered an evidentiary hearing to look into allegations of police torture and ineffective counsel. Supporters are packing the courtroom whenever Aaron has a court date to make sure that the prosecutors and Judge Michael Toomin, who is presiding over the hearing, know that they will not get away with further injustices.

In Aaron’s original trial, Judge John Morrissey made racist remarks and refused to allow Aaron’s defense team to introduce evidence that Aaron was tortured. His track record is abysmal. In another case, he denied a DNA test for death row inmate Ronald Jones -- who has since been exonerated from Illinois death row when independent DNA testing proved his innocence. And in the early 1980s, when Morrissey was a prosecutor, he fabricated evidence against exonerated prisoner Paul Steven Linscott.

Aaron was convicted and sentenced to death even though no physical evidence linked him to the crime. In fact, fingerprints from the crime scene did not match Aaron’s. This evidence is now "missing" from police and prosecutors’ files. In addition to the police-written confession, the state used a statement from a 16-year-old girl, Marva Hall. She has since recanted and stated that the prosecutor threatened her with jail and coached her statement.

Aaron is one of more than 60 Black men who were tortured at the hands of Lt. Jon Burge and his band of cops at Area 2 police headquarters. Although Burge was fired in 1993 for torturing suspects, he receives a full pension and has retired to Florida. No other officers involved in the torture have been punished, and several have been promoted.

"The state wants to just let him die in prison," said Joanne Patterson, Aaron’s mom. "He’s 38 years old now. He’s been there now for 15 years. They made a case, sent Aaron to death row wrongfully to earn their careers. How many people have retired on Aaron’s back? Look at Burge, he retired as a lieutenant. I wish I had a lieutenant’s money to retire on."

The state has no case against Aaron. Without question, Aaron Patterson deserves a new trial. But more than that, Aaron should be free.