CHICAGO — Before outgoing Gov. George Ryan spared the lives of 167 inmates on Illinois’ death row, he gave four men a greater gift: their freedom.
The case of one of the men pardoned Friday, Aaron Patterson, was the focus of Prof. David Protess’ investigative journalism class for several years.
The governor pardoned Patterson, along with Madison Hobley, Stanley Howard and Leroy Orange, in a speech at DePaul University’s College of Law. Ryan said the four men originally were convicted based on confessions that had been forced.
“Today I am pardoning them of the crimes for which they were wrongfully prosecuted and sentenced to die,” Ryan told DePaul law students and more than 100 members of the media.
The four pardons bring the tally of exonerated death row inmates in Illinois to 17 — a figure Ryan called startling compared to the 12 who have been executed.
“I’m not a lawyer, but I can tell you, I don’t think you need to be one to be appalled by those statistics,” he said.
Patterson was convicted in 1989 with Eric Caine of a 1986 double-murder at a home on Chicago’s South Side. The couple were found stabbed 34 times. Police obtained confessions from Patterson and Caine and two statements from witnesses that placed the men at the scene.
A jury sentenced Patterson to death and gave Caine life in prison.
Ryan pointed out Friday that Patterson’s confession was dubious. He allegedly was tortured by officers at Chicago’s Area 2 Police Headquarters until he gave an oral confession. When he was alone in the interrogation room, he used a paper clip to scratch words on a bench:
“I lie about murders, police threaten me with violence, slapped and suffocated me with plastic … signed false statement to murders.”
One woman who testified against Patterson later recanted.
Last year Protess’ students helped obtain an affidavit from a man that cast doubt on the other witness’ statement and implicated two other men in the murders. The students have worked to corroborate the affidavit during Fall and Winter Quarters.
“There is no physical or forensic evidence which links Patterson to the crimes,” said Ryan, adding that the alleged oral confession is the only piece of evidence that still ties him to the case.
Asked Saturday if he wanted to say anything to the NU students who helped free him, Patterson told The Daily: “They helped save my life from 1998 until now.”
Protess said he worked with students for five years to secure Patterson’s freedom.
“I was ecstatic (with the pardon),” Protess said. “Aaron’s case was the most long-standing investigation I’ve done.”
“Seeing my students feel empowered that they can change lives makes me feel as good as Aaron standing there as a free man,” Protess said.
Liz Olsson, who currently is a student in Protess’ investigative journalism class in the Medill School of Journalism, said she would like to investigate Caine’s connection to the case. He still is serving a life sentence.
Ryan was right to step in and pardon the four men Friday instead of allowing the appeals process to drag on, Olsson said.
“When there’s overwhelming evidence that human rights were violated and, basically, that there’s no reason to keep people behind bars when innocent, somebody should step in and do something when the legal system has already failed to do what it’s supposed to do,” she said.
The Daily’s Mindy Hagen contributed to this report.