Texas Tech University

English Professor Wins Prestigious Award for Social Justice Work


jill patterson

Texas Tech University English professor Leslie 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.

The Richard J. Margolis Award is given annually to a promising nonfiction writer whose work combines warmth, humor, wisdom and concern with social justice. The award was established in honor of Richard J. Margolis, a journalist, essayist and poet who wrote with a generous humanity about the rural poor, migrant farm workers, the elderly and Native Americans, as well as the political decisions that produce their economic hardships. He also wrote a number of books for children.

The 2017 award is accompanied by a $5,000 honorarium and a one-month residency at Blue Mountain Center, a working community of writers, artists and activists set in the heart of the Adirondack Mountains and Adirondack Park, the largest state park in the continental United States. The center sponsors the award.

In 2009, Patterson began working as the storyteller for public defenders, handling capital murder cases in Texas. Her work stands out for the way it humanizes the defendants she has helped represent both before and during trial. 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 20 capital murder defense teams, she has begun writing her narratives for the general public.

"It's no longer enough for me to educate people 12 jurors at a time," Patterson said. "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, who was abused severely as a child and a teenager, 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 she says "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.

"When I look at the long list of recipients of the Richard J. Margolis Award, and when I consider Margolis' work, it is daunting," Patterson said. "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."