Jamie Patterson, it is strange for me to type your name. I have not written it down, I do not think, since sometime way back in 2000 when I wrote a poem called “Jamie Patterson, I Feel Like Dying”. The title pretty much explains how I felt for a few months after you killed my dad.
When I think about my dad, I do not think about you. I think about his blue Greyhound work shirts from when I was young. I think about his years in a taxicab, before the night that you got into the back seat.
When I was young, and my dad was driving a cab, he used to come and pick me up at night sometimes to ride along. He would get calls to do runs for the blood bank, and he would have to drive long distances, sometimes to Tampa or Clearwater and back, to deliver much-needed blood to a hospital. It did not happen too often, every few months or so, but if he could he would stop by the house and take me with him. It made him seem very important for that little while. For that one cab ride, his skills were invaluable to someone. It made me feel very important, to be copilot to a man delivering life.
The message stings
The fact that someday his own blood would be spilt all over his taxi is a bitter coincidence, and an image that I cannot think of without my throat becoming tight and my eyes welling up.
Sometimes to think of all that red on a yellow cab feels like panic in my chest, like I need to go and lock myself in the bathroom and stare at a wall until my breathing is my own again, and not my father’s, gasping, hoping not to bleed out.
Sometimes thinking of all that blood feels like rage, like throwing plates and breaking glasses, like the way I felt on the day that the shock finally wore off and I was struck by the full weight of what you had taken from me, months after dad was gone.
In those moments I am reminded vividly but unkindly that nothing is certain, that all things change.
More than anything, thinking of my dad bleeding and alone always feels like profound sadness. If I let myself stop to think about my dad that September night, looking down at his shirt growing dark, hot and sticky with blood, I start to think about the shock of moving so unexpectedly from alive to dying.
In those moments I am reminded vividly but unkindly that nothing is certain, that all things change. Delivered on the blade of a knife, the message stings. So I do my best not to think about Dad bleeding, when I think of him, just like I try not to think about you.
A frog against wax
A few years ago, I had to ask my brother to tell me that he thought the right man was sitting in jail. I was present for your trial, not for your sentencing, and honestly there is a lot I do not remember. I spent longer in shock than I would like to admit, and a lot of circumstances around Dad’s death and your trial are lost somewhere in a haze, the air around them too thick to breathe.
My brother reminded me that Dad picked you out of a photo lineup. He told me that the circumstances, the evidence, everything in his memory is a resounding “guilty” stamped on your mug shot, forever. I have never forgotten Dad’s “dying declaration”, and how it pinned you, like a frog against wax, to the crime. Still, I have always wanted to know that the right frog was about to be pithed, a mind and body forever trapped, until death, in the miasma of the American penal system.
I remember thinking that you were small, and young. I remember that you looked frightened, and that your eyes had the look of a rabbit, caught by the scruff of its neck and hanging in midair, ears pinned back. You looked so scared that I looked and looked and could not see the killer in you, though every shred of evidence pointed to your face.
I called you a boy, and I still do, because that is all I saw that day.
You looked so small that I wondered why you had decided to go after a man the size of my father with a knife. You only took so very little money, and there was more if you had only looked. You panicked, maybe. Is that what happened? Did you panic, Jamie Patterson, and do you still? Do you, too, get wrapped up in anxiety so badly that you cannot move?
You looked so thin in the courtroom that I wondered how you had been strong enough to stab my dad so many times. At least 20 times. I sat in the courtroom as you entered and wondered if you had been on drugs, and whether it was crack or something else, and whether you smoked it or found some other way. I wondered whether you started using recently, and I wondered whether you stabbed my dad of your own volition or whether someone threatened you. I wondered whether it was somehow gang-related. I wondered why it had to be my dad. I wondered whether you knew yours. I wondered how long it takes a boy to stab a man 20 times.
I called you a boy, and I still do, because that is all I saw that day. I saw a scared little boy, Jamie Patterson, and I wanted to stand up and call out to you. I wanted to stand up and ask you, across that courtroom and in front of all those people, “What happened to you?”
You were only 18 years old. Who hurt you, pushed you, damaged you, broke you? Who hit you, who touched you, who ignored you, who abandoned you? What happened to you, Jamie Patterson, that made you make the choice you made that night? How old were you when life turned hopeless, or were you born screaming into an ugly world?
For years now, I have wanted to know why you killed my dad.
I have looked at your picture. Every few years the Florida penitentiary system sees a ping from my computer when I look up your name to find out if you are still alive. It has been several years since the last time I looked, until today. Your name was there, your face was older, harder and meaner. I supposed that is what one expects. Then I saw that you are still appealing your conviction.
It has been more than 20 years, and you continue to maintain your innocence.
We are at an impasse, Jamie Patterson. I have wanted your confession for two decades now. I have wanted an admission. I have wanted the only other person in the taxi that night to tell me, now, what my father cannot. Yet you still say that it was not you that did this thing – this thing that undid us all in so many ways, like ropes slowly unravelling in a storm.
I wondered whether to write to you at all, whether I am squandering the richness of my loss on you.
I was able to see some of the more recent court records online. I saw some of your letters to the court, your appeals for a response. I saw things in your handwriting. I wondered whether to write to you at all, whether I am squandering the richness of my loss on you.
I called an old friend of mine who is a judge in another state. I wanted to talk about the best way to be able to see all of the court records about you, from the beginning until now.
“I’m just curious about reading the court records. All of them. It’s been a long time, but I just … There are things that I don’t remember and … I don’t know. I guess I want to have more clarity around a lot of fuzzy memories about the trial itself.”
“I can understand that.”
“The thing is,” I told him, “He’s still appealing.”
“Of course he’s appealing, Susan. That’s what they do. What else has he got to do? He’s sitting in prison for the rest of his life.”
I heard his logic. I also heard you called a “they” and I know that you have been reduced to no more than this. You have been transformed into a number. What have you got to lose?
What did you have to lose then, back in September of 1997? Anything at all, or is that precisely why you chose that knife, that payphone, that night, that taxi company? Is that why you chose my dad, Jamie Patterson – because you had nothing to lose?
Your sentencing day
I want to go back to read the records from your sentencing day. I want to know whether someone spoke for me. I sent a letter to my mum. I wanted it read to you and she said she would see to it. It was my victim’s statement, and I could not be there to give it myself. I do not think it was ever read. Maybe the court would not allow it. Mum said she had read it, but she was too often trying to protect me from the truth, when the truth is all I have ever wanted. I have a newspaper article about that day in court and my statement was never mentioned, though my brothers’ statements were.
It mattered to me because I wanted you to know that I forgave you, way back then. It mattered to me that you knew I had seen you, young and small and scared. People call murderers “animals” – and in a way, that day, that is how I saw you. The trouble with saying that, the thing that some may not understand, is that I love animals. I have been around them, many different species of them, much of my life. I also know animals. Any dog can be tortured enough that it will fight – or it will die through its resistance. Any living creature, chained and beaten, restrained and ignored, abandoned and starved, will enter a psychological metamorphosis. And I know that children, like animals, often can only become what we force them to become.
I have never held you entirely blameless. Some part of you made a choice that night, perhaps, and maybe it is a choice you could have made differently. But, could you? Were you too broken? I really do not know. It may be life’s greatest mystery for me and I likely will forever have to settle for the evidence instead of the simple truth.
Checking the rearview mirror
Why were you in my dad’s taxi, Jamie Patterson? I worry, always, that justice was not served. I have been told by my brother, the police, the prosecutor, the court of law that you are the guilty man. I only wish you would someday confess. I worry because racism rages on in our world and you have the misfortune of being non-white. I worry about justice because I worry about almost everything. I work hard at being optimistic, but a lot of things in life have made me less than sure. My dad being fine one minute and stabbed the next was just one of them, but it was a very big one.
Anxiety is uncomfortable, like when jeans are too tight and bind, pinch, strangle. There is no way for you to know how foolish I feel when I cannot simply decide whether to make soup or a sandwich for dinner. It is hard to explain to you that my dad being stabbed means that some days I cannot tell my husband if I would rather take a walk or watch a movie. Not without splashing cool water on my face and taking a lot of deep breaths.
If you have not learned about my kind of anxiety yet, maybe you would not understand. People with anxiety function and make decisions. I make lots of excellent business and personal decisions, every day, with ease. I function better in the middle of panic and confusion than most people do when surrounded by calm and tranquility. In a time of crisis, I am often people’s go-to. I handle the big parts of life like a champion, because there is usually a right or wrong answer. I triage. I respond to emergency.
I do not respond well to “What would make you happy?” I do not respond well to “Which would you prefer?” I sometimes do not know what I want, because the things that I want are not what are being offered. What I want is to be sure. Random chaos, your violence, has my eyes forever checking the rearview mirror on my very worst days, even as I work to steer ahead.
Benefit of the doubt
Maybe you cannot understand like I cannot understand how a man can commit murder and, 20 years later, not want to finally tell the truth.
If I believed that there was a heaven, a divine afterlife, and an inferno where souls suffer, I would tell you to repent and cleanse yourself of sin or face eternal damnation. I do not really think that is how it goes, though, and I wonder if you do. I wonder if you have a religion, or whether you have faith in anything at all. I wonder if you are suffering now, because I cannot think that life in prison is anything less than hell on Earth.
My dad raised us all to always give people the benefit of the doubt. Twenty-plus years later, and I still doubt you. I wish I did not. I think you are guilty. If I knew you were innocent, I would fight for your release until we won it. I imagine what it would feel like to know for sure, one way or the other, beyond a shred of doubt, and it feels like swimming in a warm, calm ocean. It feels certain and good, like riding along with my father, delivering blood.