Last Chance Class

Aaron Patterson was never one to walk away from a fight. The Illinois death-row inmate admits that back in the '80s, when he was the feared leader of Chicago's Apache Rangers, plenty of his street gang's enemies learned just how relentless he could be. Patterson's stubborn streak was still on display in 1989, when he was condemned to die for the murder of an elderly couple: he kept shouting in the courtroom that the cops had tortured a confession out of him. "You're holding me for a murder I didn't even do!" he yelled at the judge. For 10 years on death row, Patterson, 34, kept mouthing off--producing pamphlets, recording audio tapes, haranguing lawyers and writing to newspapers and anyone else who might listen to his claim that he didn't kill Rafaela and Vincent Sanchez. One of his letters reached Prof. David Protess at Northwestern University.

The journalism professor shares the prisoner's flair for getting attention. The 53-year-old teacher is something of a celebrity after helping to free three wrongly accused men from Illinois' death row. (Hollywood producer Jerry Bruckheimer is at work on a feature movie about him.) Protess can afford to be picky when it comes to capital-punishment subjects for his investigative-reporting class. Since he and his student sleuths helped spring another convict, Anthony Porter, in February, Protess estimates he's received 2,000 e-mails and letters. "My home number is scribbled on every death row in the country," he says.


Team Patterson didn't always believe so passionately that their man was innocent. Protess had told them only to "find the truth." But they did know one disturbing statistic: for every seven executions nationwide since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, one death-row inmate has been set free. In Northwestern University's own state, Illinois, there have been just as many exonerations as executions. Last week, Ronald Jones became the 12th man to walk off the state's death row (and the 79th nationally) when DNA evidence proved he could not have committed the rape and murder he was convicted of. Even Protess's critics give him part of the credit for Illinois' streak of releases, and for raising national awareness of the argument for tightening the rules for the death penalty. Just last week, the Nebraska Legislature voted for a moratorium on executions.

On the first day of class at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism last fall, the students sat nervously as Protess straddled his chair and warned them to brace themselves for a "tough emotional ride." Most had already heard about the rigors of investigation--and the challenge of dealing with a volatile, autocratic, spotlight-loving professor. Still, they queued up to get into his class. Dave Rogers, an aspiring FBI agent from Massachusetts, wanted to scrutinize the law from the inside out; California's Bernice Yeung wanted training in "social justice" journalism. Sheri Hall, from suburban Detroit, was one of the doubters who drove two hours to visit Patterson at the maximum-security Pontiac Correctional Center. After passing through three locked gates, she finally sat across from him, separated by a thick glass divider. "He put me at ease right away," Hall says. They talked music, current events. A college and National Guard dropout, Patterson impressed her as bright. He had read everything in his file and studied the law books at the prison library. When asked straight out if he had killed the couple, he looked her in the eye and said: "Nah, I wouldn't kill no old people."

Patterson says that 12 days after the Sanchezes were stabbed to death, police rounded him up and handcuffed him to a ring in the wall of an interrogation room. For an hour, Patterson denied to detectives that he had killed the couple. Then he claims they got impatient: "The lights went out and they bum-rushed me." He says a thick plastic bag was forced tight against his face as detectives started beating his chest. They "bagged" him again, he explains, and warned him to confess or he'd "get something worse." "They are going to kill me up in here," Patterson recalls thinking. So he consented to an oral confession but refused to sign the written version. With a paper clip snatched off the desk, Patterson scratched a message onto a metal bench that was discovered several days later: "Aaron 4/30 I lie about murders/Police threaten me with violence/Slapped and suffocated me with plastic."

But a physical exam at the jail revealed no signs of abuse, and the jury apparently found it hard to believe that Patterson, the son of a Chicago police lieutenant, would be mistreated. (His father, now retired and living in Virginia, believes his son.) The police version of his confession seemed more credible. According to cops, on April 18, 1986, Patterson (already wanted for two attempted murders) headed out to steal guns from the Sanchezes, who were well-known neighborhood fences. The couple resisted. According to police, this is what Patterson said about what happened next: "I came up on Sanchez like a straight-up Ninja. He got shanked... His old lady tried to run. I did her, too. I had that chick swinging everywhere." The 73-year-old Sanchez was stabbed 25 times; his wife, 62, nine times.

In the cluttered office of Patterson's pro bono lawyers, the Northwestern students began to comb through a three-foot pile of court documents. They read about nine other death-row inmates who claim they were tortured in the same police district and learned that an internal police investigation in 1990 had found "systematic" abuse, including electroshock and "ear cupping." There also was no physical evidence linking Patterson to the crime. The knife was never recovered; the fingerprints found at the scene weren't a match (and have disappeared since). Patterson's codefendant, Eric Caine, who told police Patterson did it, said he, too, had been beaten; a medical exam later revealed a shattered ear drum. "I was scared," Caine told the students. "I was making up a story."

That left the testimony of a 16-year-old named Marva Hall. She'd told the jury that Patterson, while trying to sell her a shotgun two days after the murders, had boasted about the killings. Two students, Delores Patterson (no relation) and Marc Graser, tracked her to the small Alabama town of Dothan. They used their own money for the cheapest tickets to Atlanta, then drove four hours south. As they waited in front of Hall's little house, they practiced role-playing, a technique Protess had drilled into them. He had them knock on his classroom door and try to stammer their way in, then slammed the door in their faces and made them try harder. "Do you think a mild-mannered reporter gets people out of prison?" he said.

His tactics seem to work. Protess's students talked their way into Hall's tidy living room, and soon she was pouring out a tale that didn't match her courtroom testimony. Patterson had tried to sell her uncle a shotgun, but that was two weeks before the murder. As she would later swear in an affidavit, she claimed that the state's attorney, Jack Hynes, had pressured her into changing the timetable. Afraid of being jailed, she cooperated. "It was like I was reading a script," she said of her testimony. Hynes denies threatening or coaching Hall. He says she would only change her story because of threats from Patterson. But Hall says she's trying to undo a wrong. "I helped send [an] innocent man to jail," she told the students. Protess had been pacing his house for hours when he got their news. "Holy s---!" he yelled into the phone.

Many of Protess's students have come to share his bravado--and few tell their parents where they go on assignment. This term the students visited Patterson's South Side neighborhood, trying to answer the question "If Patterson didn't kill the Sanchezes, who did?" They read an affidavit obtained by Patterson's lawyers claiming that a neighborhood troublemaker, Willie Washington, had proposed robbing the Sanchezes before their murder--and discovered that Washington had been convicted in 1994 of stabbing a woman two dozen times during a burglary similar to the Sanchez case. Further digging revealed that a neighborhood man, Charlie Tillery, said he had seen Washington with a stash of guns soon after the murders.

The students, working in groups of two or three, began "to stalk Charlie," says Marshall, who drove a dozen times to the neighborhood. Chicago police warn that these trips are terribly dangerous, but Medill's dean says he is comfortable with Protess's precautions: he coaches kids on how to assess the risk, spot gang colors and steer clear of the toughest housing projects. In fact the students were more frustrated than frightened. For months, they camped outside Tillery's house on a street known for drive-by shootings and drug deals. On a good day they'd tail Tillery to the liquor store and grab a few minutes of conversation--once even getting him to admit on tape that he bought a gun from Washington shortly after the murders. On a bad day, Tillery's girlfriend would come out and yell: "Get out of here, white people!"

Protess tells his class to stay objective, but they all get personally involved. His desk is cluttered with photos of himself with the men he has freed. He spent this past Valentine's Day with Porter, who was having personal problems after release from prison. At one point, the professor discovered that his own preteen son was staying home on Saturday nights to take collect calls from a lonely death-row prisoner. Protess's students often repeat his seminar for no credit, work 30-hour weeks and weekends and sometimes see the class dissolve into tears of disappointment and recriminations over tactics. "Not a day goes by that I don't think about the case," Graser says. "It haunts me."

After one condemned man they were trying to exonerate lost his appeal and was executed in 1995, Protess called in a grief counselor for the devastated students. Northwestern has considered pulling the plug on the course. "He has all the plusses and all the problems of a religious martyr," says the former dean, Michael Janeway. Protess, who got his start as a better-government watchdog, found that changing one life was a bigger "rush."

Team Patterson graduates in June. Willie Washington continues to insist to the students that he knows nothing about the Sanchez murders. Patterson's lawyers hope to convince the court that their client deserves another hearing because of the new evidence and shoddy representation. (Patterson cycled through eight public defenders at trial; a commercial litigator with no criminal-law background handled his appeal.) As for Protess, he'll help launch the new Center for Wrongful Convictions and the Death Penalty this fall at Northwestern, and will keep probing Patterson's case and others. In the meantime, Aaron Patterson remains on death row. "With Protess on my case, I've got some credibility," he says. He firmly believes that the next time he's shouting in a courtroom, it will be for joy.