Exonerated Death Row Inmate at World Social Forum

By Érica Junghans

PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil — Exonerated death-row inmate Aaron Patterson took center stage at a World Social Forum conference on the abolition of the death penalty.

Patterson spoke to the audience through a video feed from Northeastern Illinois University, along with family members of other prisoners, just a few weeks after being pardoned by Illinois Governor George Ryan.

He alleges he confessed only after being tortured by John Burge, a former police commander who, according to Chicago Police Superindent Terry Hillard, has “disgraced” the Chicago Police Department.

Not long after pardoning Patterson, Ryan, who is leaving office under the cloud of a bribery scandal, commuted the death sentences of 167 other inmates.

Reaction to the pardons and commutations has been deeply divided. Death penalty proponents cite the extreme brutality of many of the cases, while opponents decry a flawed system that has been proven to convict innocent people.

“The pardons and commutations are a tremendous victory — the biggest since the U.S. death penalty was reinstated more than 25 years ago. Now we need to fight to abolish it,” said Joan Parkin, director of the U.S.-based Campaign to End the Death Penalty, who was in Porto Alegre and spoke at the conference.

The audience in Porto Alegre listened attentively to the story told by Patterson.

One attendee, an elderly white South African, commented that the death penalty was abolished in his country with apartheid, and that the American practice is consistent with the bellicose attitude of the Bush administration.

A Brazilian youth added that “it doesn’t matter whether or not the prisoner is guilty or innocent, the death penalty is a fascist resource to solve a nation’s crime problems.”

The United States — where 3,500 prisoners are currently on death row — is ranked fourth among nations with prisoners awaiting judicial execution, right after China, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

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