Tyra Patterson says she was was overjoyed—but not surprised—when her her second chance at a brand-new life came to her to on Christmas Day, a few weeks ago.
“God had prepared me for this day, and I was ready to move forward. Even though I spent half my life in prison, I said the same prayer every single day. I kept my faith, my spirit and my attitude positive,” Patterson, 42, said. She told Rewire and other media that she didn’t want to become too “hard” or negative.
After a state board granted her parole last fall, Patterson walked free of the Northeast Pre-Release Center in Cleveland. She had spent the last 23 years of her life behind bars after being convicted of aggravated murder and robbery.
Patterson is now working as a paralegal at her attorney David Singleton’s firm, the Ohio Justice and Policy Center (OJPC). Although the OJPC typically works to improve conditions behind bars rather than pushing for parole or clemency, Singleton says another person in prison recommended he meet with Patterson. After that, he says, he was compelled to shift his focus and get her out from behind bars.
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Singleton’s biggest lesson from this case, as he said to multiple outlets including Rewire, is to “never write people off.”
As Patterson tells it, on September 20, 1994, she was hanging out on the street with a friend at night. They ran into five people, none of whom Patterson knew well. They then encountered another group of five teenagers in a car, including 15-year-old Dayton, Ohio, teenager Michelle Lai.
From there it went downhill. The details are fuzzy. Everyone present, however, agreed that there was an altercation, ending with a fatal gunshot to Lai’s head. As the Guardian reported in October of last year, “Another woman in the group, LaShawna Keeney, 21, shot Lai at close range as the victim was sitting in a car with her sister and two other friends. Keeney is serving a life sentence for the murder, which she does not contest.”
According to Patterson, she tried to stop the altercation from becoming violent, but failed. After the shooting, she ran home and called 911. All the teenagers were subsequently arrested, including Patterson.
As she told Rewire and other outlets, Patterson feels her inexperience put her at a disadvantage after her arrest. “I didn’t know anything about how detectives worked. I was very young, not educated and not smart. I was crying and I was telling them I didn’t do anything, I was helping,” she said.
When she watched the video of her interrogation later, she says, it appears as if she’s being “coached to confess” to both the murder and robbery. In interviews with the Dayton Daily News, a Montgomery County prosecutor has said that Patterson is “anything but the victim.” Meanwhile, Joe Deters, the current prosecutor for Hamilton County, where Patterson’s appeal was heard, told media outlets that regardless of what happened, Patterson has spent more time in jail than people who are guilty of pulling a trigger.
“I wanted to be helpful and cooperative to the police …. I just wanted to go home. I wanted to go home. I wanted it all to be over,” Patterson said.
At trial, prosecutors said they had no independent evidence to support Patterson’s story or that of the other witnesses who implicated her in the crime. Because Patterson was in possession of a necklace that belonged to Lai’s friend, however, prosecutors determined that she must have been in the car and fired the gun.
Patterson, meanwhile, says she picked up the necklace from the street and never had a chance to tell investigators—or the court—whether she planned to return it to its rightful owner.
In fact, Patterson says her legal team made the decision to not put her on the stand at all. In Patterson’s view, this was because she sounded “poor, uneducated, and street.” They also agreed to keep the fact of the 911 call out of the trial. Lai’s family did not know that it was Patterson who made the crucial call until years later.
Patterson was charged with aggravated murder and aggravated robbery and sentenced to 43 years to life in jail.
Even as she maintained she was innocent, Patterson says she spent her time behind bars as “positively and productively [as] possible.”
Patterson, who was born in Dayton, told Rewire that she “was raised by a single mom who did her best. We were homeless for most of my life. We lived in attics and basements in winter sometimes because of the kindness of our family and relatives.”
She dropped out of school at age 11. Though she loved learning, she said, “The problem was that being homeless I went to a whole lot of different schools and when I left each school, no one noticed that I was gone.”
When she went to prison, she was illiterate. Inside, she learned to read and write, passed the GED, and earned a paralegal degree. She also, as other outlets have reported, received more than 200 certificates and programs from various initiatives for the incarcerated.
Five years ago, Singleton took on Patterson’s case. An OJPC board member had gotten to know Tyra and asked him to take her on. At first, he’d refused because her case was outside OJPC’s mission. When another client introduced him to Patterson, however, he decided to take on the task of getting her parole.
Three years later, Singleton was able to connect with the murder victim’s sister, Holly Lai Holbrook. Afterward, Holbrook, wrote a letter to Gov. John Kasich (R) pleading for Patterson’s release. Although she had said at trial that Patterson had fully participated in the robberies and that she couldn’t remember who had taken the necklace, Holbrook corrected herself in the letter.
“I believe that the police did their best to solve Michelle’s murder. But they also told us things as trial approached that may have influenced how we remembered things,” Holbrook wrote. She said that at the time of the incident, she’d told an officer that Patterson was not involved with the robbery.
“I wish that I had known at trial that Tyra had called 911. For all these years, I believed that no one at the scene cared about us,” Holbrook reflected. “After hearing Tyra’s 911 call recently, I now believe that she cared.”
“I feel bad that [Tyra] has been in prison so long for crimes I now believe she did not commit,” Holbrook concluded.
The Ohio Justice and Policy Center
Patterson recognizes that some may see her as a statistic: There are more than 2.2 million incarcerated people in the United States. And according to a report by the Sentencing Project, Black people in the country are roughly five times more likely to be incarcerated in state prison than their white counterparts. According to Singleton, legal experts say that in Ohio, prosecutors sometimes pressure police to solve crimes quickly to prove to their voter base that they are “tough on crime.” This can lead to wrongful convictions or plea deals in which the defendants are forced to admit guilt to a lesser crime and avoid costly or lengthy trials.
In response to this environment, advocacy organizations including the OJPC have sprung up throughout Ohio. When it was created in 1997, the prison system in the state was in the middle of unprecedented growth, and those inside needed representation in court to restore their basic human rights. The center primarily focuses on the treatment of those inside; Patterson is, in fact, the first person that the center has gotten out of prison.
Patterson, meanwhile, is still not free. She is on parole for five years with strict conditions, and she is neither pardoned nor exonerated. Singleton is petitioning for her clemency.
“It’s really important to reclaim your name because a conviction still has the power to dictate where you live, work, and [whether you can] be around children,” said Patterson, who finds the last stipulation very hard because her extended family has young children with whom she wants to spend time.
Still, Patterson feels that she is lucky: Thanks to a social media campaign started by Singleton, along with former U.S. Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-OH) and Cincinnati City Council member Tamaya Dennard, people gave her everything she needed—including furniture and connection to find an apartment.
“So many people care for me. I want to show them that I am worth it, that they didn’t make a mistake with me. I want to do the same for others,” she said.
That’s why, in addition to her job as a paralegal for the OJPC, she is working with other criminal justice advocates and state lawmakers on a reentry program as part of the Second Chances Community Legal Clinics. The program would give newly released women the resources they need to keep them from returning to jail; Patterson specifically wants to create a specific project to provide reentry “mentors.”
“I wanted to give back. I want to help others because this is the help that they gave to me and to others and I am going to do the same,” Patterson said.
She continued, “I want to help them because if they don’t get help, they will go back to jail, because it is too hard to make it, because no one cares.”