Jill Patterson, a writer whose work gives voice to indigent men and women
charged with capital murder and facing execution in the state of Texas, has won
the 2017 Richard J. Margolis Award. Patterson’s work stood out for the way it
humanizes the defendants she has helped represent both before and during trial.
In 2009, she began working as the storyteller for public defenders handling
capital murder cases in the state of Texas. Her narratives—which explore the
defendants’ lives, from childhood to their crossroads—are used to help obtain a
life without parole plea before going to trial.
Today, after serving on
more than twenty capital murder defense teams, she has begun writing her
narratives for the general public. “It’s no longer enough for me to educate
people twelve jurors at a time,” Patterson says. “I want us to have a
serious conversation about systemic poverty, racial prejudice, and the
difference between true justice and simple revenge. I want my clients to be
heard and seen as human beings—I have learned so much from them.” In one
essay, published in the journal 1966, she shows how a client, abused severely as
a child and a teen, taught her, during a jailhouse interview, the meaning of
grace when she herself had moved long past the ability to forgive.
Currently, Patterson is completing a book about the struggle to represent men
and women charged with capital murder inside a legal system that “seems
intent on killing not just their bodies, but their very humanity.” The book
shares her experiences in the field with witnesses, in courtrooms facing
unrelenting judges and prosecutors, and in visitation rooms with her clients.
Patterson’s work has appeared in The Rumpus, Gulf Coast, Creative Nonfiction,
Prime Number Magazine, Colorado Review, and other journals. Her awards include a
2012 Embrey Human Rights Fellowship, a 2014 Soros Justice
Fellowship, and the 2014 Time and Place Prize in Brittany, France.
She teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Texas Tech University.
“When I look at the long list of recipients of the Richard J. Margolis
Award, when I consider Margolis’s work,” Patterson says, “it is
daunting. These writers have accomplished so much in the name of social justice.
And the award will provide me some time in a peaceful setting, so contrary to my
dark days in the field and in court, to focus on finishing my book. It will also
help me cover a trial in the far reaches of Texas, where I’ll be living in a
hotel room for weeks, maybe months. For all of this, I am so thankful.”