By André Patterson
Cover image by Ye Jinghan
Assistant State’s Attorney Edward Barnes stood before the courtroom, visibly distraught, as he read the impact statement from the family of twenty-one-year-old murder victim “A.F.” He choked over his words, struggling to deliver each sentence. With a teardrop punctuating the final line of the emotional missive, A.S.A. Barnes painted a vivid picture in dark, irate hues, depicting my disregard for human life. He brought his case home with a final plea for justice, rebuking any of the mitigating claims that had been presented on my behalf, tearing down all requests to consider my rehabilitative potential.
“The time for rehabilitation, the time for realization, the time to find God would have been on the morning of July 29th, 2000, when Mr. Patterson took the life of a human being who committed the high crime of trying to hold on to his wallet…if things were so rough, why didn’t Mr. Patterson turn to his vast support network?” A.S.A. Barnes flapped his arms exasperatedly towards the department-store-sized plexiglass window at the back of the courtroom. Behind it, a small group of people had been assembled to show the judge I would be missed if I were warehoused for the rest of my life.
Among them was my mom, who parlayed a decades-long patronage of crack into a pretty lucrative business selling rocks the size of match heads out of the neighborhood lounge; and my dad, whose cocaine addiction, coupled with a tenacious work ethic, was apparently causing him to melt in his clothes; and my beloved Grandma, her lightning-white hair framing the naive disbelief on her face. Her smart, gentle grandson couldn’t have done the things they were alleging.
“A.F. didn’t have the luxury of parents who were absentee, or non-loving, or emotionally withdrawn. His parents were dead. But he managed to set himself up as a potential role model for his community. He said I’m going to suffer and sacrifice and rely on my support network and show the kids that you don’t need to succeed with a gun in your hand, or a bag on the corner. But he just had the misfortune to be in that alleyway with his brother and friend on the night when André Patterson decided he needed a little extra drinking money after he had been out boozing it up with his two relatives.”
He took a dramatic pause, shaking his head, allowing the somberness of his narrative to settle over the courtroom. Ed Barnes was a performer. “It’s almost like a Shakespearean dichotomy there: two people who had similar backgrounds; one chose to work within his limits and try and better himself, and one who took all of his gifts and turned them to evil. Just out-and-out evil.
“Doesn’t matter if you’re raised by absentee parents or Raised by Wolves, you know sticking a gun in somebody’s face is wrong. And taking their money is wrong. It’s evil. And when A.F. decides to refuse, what does he do? He puts one in the back like the most cowardly person you can possibly imagine.
“Your honor, this man has earned the ultimate penalty with everything he’s done in his adult life. It’s all devoted to crime and violence. Because that’s what’s going to keep society safe. That’s what’s going to punish him for the death of A.F. and show the next André Patterson it’s not an excuse that your parents didn’t pay enough attention to you. It’s not an excuse that you had a rough upbringing. You live by the choices you have made. Thank you, Judge.” Ed Barnes closed his argument and his briefcase in one grand gesture, retreating behind an ancient wooden table that had harbored more callous prosecutors than him in his tenure at courtroom 302.
For a minute, I forgot to breathe. I couldn’t breathe, with my feet shackled and a chain snaking itself around my waist, coiling around the cuffs so that my hands were frozen in place against my stomach. I couldn’t draw any comfort from the business-office lights that illuminated the room but didn’t allow my accusers to truly see me, or find any compassion in the monochrome carpet and faux-wood-paneled walls that bore witness to my pending doom. Their only job was to capture the eerie silence that shouted even louder than the state’s sweeping judgments.
This was a sentencing hearing, so my fate was already sealed. Whether I was going to be banished to an eternal hell or a temporary purgatory was yet to be determined. Months prior, I had already decided that I had to take accountability. That would come in the form of a “blind” guilty plea, where there was no sentence negotiation, but I would be able to face A.F.’s family. I wanted to try and explain myself without making excuses. Let them know that ever since I could remember, I hated myself. That I had been running away away from my vulnerabilities, my week will and lack of grit, and their brother needlessly fell victim to that. I wanted to give them closure if possible. I felt like I had to give them my life for the life I had taken.
But, I secretly hoped for mercy. In the darkness of my cell, I cried out to God begging for it. I was haunted by the conflict. One half of me was convinced of everything A.S.A. Barnes had said about me. It was confirmation that I wasn’t shit. That my actions were so irreparably harmful that it would be absurd for me not to pay the price. But the other part of me wondered, does it have to be the full price? Did retribution literally look like my whole eye, or just color blindness? Because that part of me felt like the person who did these things that got us here wasn’t a true representative. That was a mask. A bad acting job. Just ask around, that side of me pleaded. Everyone says that isn’t me.
None of it mattered anyway. A.F.’s family didn’t show up to bear witness to my offering myself up as a sacrifice. It was doubtful that God would show up either.
The judge removed her glasses, carefully placing them between the gavel that put an ! on her Authority and the name plate that boasted of her honor. She peered down at me from her throne of condemnation. I followed the lines underneath her eyes, the only cracks in a smooth Brown face, and searched for any early indication of what was to come. She had been a faceless poker player throughout the proceedings. Now she opened her mouth and spoke with the tone of Alpha and Omega.
“There’s an old saying: ‘if you have nothing good to say about somebody, don’t say it at all.’ I thought to myself, I should just go straight to sentencing and have it over with. But that would be unlike me.
“As you can see Mr. Patterson, the state is asking that when you are removed from the edifice of the Department of Corrections, that you be removed in your casket and buried six feet under. They are asking for your life. On the other hand, others have asked that you be given a glimmer of light on the outside of the Illinois Department of Corrections.
“I looked over your birth certificate and tried to go into that delivery room, where this seventeen-year-old mother delivered you, father’s name unlisted…I tried to go back to see what would make a human being like you explode. Give it all up. Throw your life away. But I’m not a psychologist. I’m a parent. There’s something so elementary to understand the difference between good versus evil…right versus wrong.
“I abhor violence, that’s the bottom line. It’s my job as I sit here today, and this is the final word on it, that the people of this community be set free from your acts of terror. I’m not going to administer the death penalty. But the period of time you will get will be long. Many of your loved ones and friends, you’re going to find out, will not be around through this period of time. They will fade away for various reasons—old age, death. Or they will go on with their lives. It will be hard. I can only hope that a higher being will not only take care of A.F., but that he can remain with you to give you strength to get through this sentence.
“It will be the judgement of this court that in case number 01-4635, that you be sentenced to a period of one hundred years in the Illinois Department of Corrections. Serving one hundred percent of that sentence…On the remaining cases, 01-10825, forty-five years, 01-10826, forty-five years, 01-10825, twenty-five years…”
The judge’s voice became background noise as the whole scene melted away from me and another one appeared on my memory screen. I was twenty years old and had just finished serving a seventeen- month prison sentence. I was sitting on my cousin’s dark porch on the corner of Chicago Avenue and St. Louis, surrounded by him and a small circle of friends I had known since grade school. From the street, passing by, it would probably have looked like several phantom silhouettes, with a small, fiery cherry floating in their midst.
The energy of indifference emanating from young, black men with no vision for the future permeated that small space and mingled with the rising marijuana smoke into the atmosphere. My senses were bombarded by the zealous inhalation of herb, the swishing of liquid from upturned liquor bottles, and the faint rustling of a caravan of rats, trooping through the nearby bushes. A scene I was all too familiar with. Nothing had changed.
I took rapid, deep swigs from my bottle, racing to get to the place where I didn’t have to contend with my fears or conscience; everything was just numb. In this state, I would become whoever I told myself I was. In those days, the persona I was creating in my head was a little more callous. It’s not like prison had made me a tough guy; I was still as soft in constitution as the day I was born. It was a character I conjured up that was most affected. After this prison experience, he realized that he had to be willing to inflict harm to guard his weakness, to keep his vulnerabilities from being exposed. He had to do whatever it took to maintain respect and acceptance.
The scrutiny I felt I was under at the time—by friends, by the neighborhood—only fueled this alter-ego. Coming out of the “joint,” I was expected to be bigger and badder. I was walking down the street in my white tank top when a girl I grew up with asked me, “where yo’ muscles at? When Ron-Ron got out he was swole!”
So, even though on that porch I was surrounded by cats who had known me as a lowly lamb from my conception, I felt compelled to show them that I had danced with wolves. I took another deep swig and disrupted the non-verbal banter with a bold proclamation: “If I ever go back to the joint…It’s going to be for something serious…I’m going to be gone for a long time…”
From that night on, it seemed as if all of the forces of the universe had converged, through the events of my life, to make sure my words came to fruition.
That day, in the courtroom, I was proven to be a prophet.
The only soul remaining in that cold, empty room, was my best friend. The judge allowed me five minutes to say goodbye. My friend wrapped her arms around my captive body, chest heaving with sobs. I rested my tears on her shoulder, speaking into her neck.
“What am I going to do now?” I asked.
She pulled her heaving chest away from me, calmed her breathing, and said, as if it were the most logical thing in the world:
“Prove them wrong.”
André Patterson is a Prison + Neighborhood Arts Project alum, participating in classes at Stateville Correctional Center, in Crest Hill, Illinois. He is also enrolled in Northwestern University’s Prison Education Program. His vision is to create content that will help young people deal with issues of self-confidence and self-limitation, countering the negative inner chatter that demoralizes one’s will. He’s in a constant battle with his own inner voice.
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