He'd been on death row for seven years by the time our paths crossed. At the time of the interview he was 24 and a mere two weeks away from his execution date. I was 27 and fresh out of law school. We were both young black men. I happened to have been born into a college-educated family, raised in a middle-class home and guided through life by a high expectations and extensive opportunities. The young man I was interviewing had experienced none of the privileges I took for granted. The interview was a harrowing experience both because of his demeanor (he was serene throughout the interview) and because of the implications (the interview was part of a last gasp effort to spare his life). I remember imagining my 17 year-old self on trial for triple murder, how I would've reacted to the words "guilty," what it would've been like to spend all of my adult life in a prison cell.
Was he innocent? I don't know. Was he guilty? I don't know. Was that even the issue at the end of the day? Two weeks after our interview I was in Madison, Wisconsin when I got the call. Toronto was gone. Less than three years later the Supreme Court officially upended the law. Persons under the age of 18 at the time of the crime could no longer face execution. Toronto Patterson would be the last juvenile offender in the state of Texas to face execution.
Six years passed but his story never left me. I thought of him often. Quietly, he was part of my life. But I never allowed myself to entertain the possibility of his innocence or of state malfeasance. But then, one day, I started to write about Toronto. That was more than three years ago. Eventually I reached out to his lawyers. They were kind enough to send me thousands of pages of trial documents. I spent weeks pouring through them and others I acquired through other means. What I began to discover — both because of my legal training and general compassion — was that many other factors besides guilt and innocence had tipped the scales during the trial. That began the journey.