It’s one of those criminal cases that makes you shake your head in disbelief.
Within a few weeks 42-year-old Tyra Patterson will be released from an Ohio prison after serving 23 years for a murder she is now widely believed not to have committed. She will have spent more than half her life behind bars. It’s a case that makes you wonder how many others have been caught up in the justice system this way.
Tyra, who I first wrote about back in 2013, has always maintained her innocence in the senseless shooting death of 15-year-old Michelle Lai.
In short, Tyra and her friend Becca Stidham were in the wrong place at the wrong time when a group of girls, unknown to them, began to harass and rob five teenagers sitting in a Chevette. After punches were thrown through the car windows a necklace from one of the victims ended up on the sidewalk. Tyra admits she instinctively bent down and picked it up. Then, she says, as she and Becca ran from the scene they heard a shot. They had no way of knowing that a girl named LaShawna Keeny had just committed murder.
The frightened teens said they ran to Tyra’s nearby apartment and once inside Tyra immediately called 911 for help. “I heard a gunshot,” Tyra tells the operator. “Please hurry up and come.”
The next day Tyra and Becca voluntarily went to the police station to tell them what they knew. Tyra left out the part about picking up the necklace and that would come back to haunt her. She would be painted as part of the marauding gang who had viciously robbed and murdered a young girl.
After she shared her story with police Tyra says the detective’s words stunned her. “You’re a liar. I have witnesses. You killed a young girl. You are going down for murder.” And that is exactly what happened. Tyra was sentenced to 43 years to life in prison for being an accessory to aggravated robbery and murder. The actual shooter would be sentenced to less – 30 years to life.
Tyra, a black kid who had a sixth grade education and had somehow survived a miserable poverty-plagued childhood says she succumbed to hours and hours of interrogation and confessed because she just “wanted to go home.”
For some inexplicable reason Tyra’s lawyer never called Becca to the stand to corroborate their version of the story. The defense never raised the issue of how often false confessions are offered and, perhaps most damning, they failed to play the tape of Tyra’s frantic 911 call for help.
In addition, jurors didn’t learn about two important sworn statements. One from the shooter, LaShawna Keeney, who said, “Tyra actually tried to stop the robbery. She walked up to me and told me to leave the victims alone.” A second statement from an eye-witness who had been walking her dog nearby read in part, “I remember Tyra trying to stop the robbery by telling LaShawna to leave the victims alone.”
Five years ago, attorney David Singleton, executive director of the Ohio Justice and Policy Center, took up Tyra’s case. He dug deeper into the facts and began to put together a strong case for the parole board, he filed for clemency with Ohio Governor John Kasich and amassed a group of supporters ranging from Hollywood stars to the former Ohio Attorney General. Others also stepped up to help Tyra including the sister of the dead girl who was in the car during the murder. Holly Lai Holbrook supports Tyra’s version of events and believes she was not involved in her sister’s murder.
And get this, six of the 12 jurors that heard Tyra’s case and voted guilty now say if they knew back then what they know now about the murder – especially, that Tyra had been the one who called 911 for help — they never would have voted to convict. They joined the campaign to get the governor to free Tyra Patterson. The pleas was ignored.
Last week the Ohio parole board announced that Tyra is to be granted parole effective on or before this Christmas eve. The board rejected the prosecutor’s call for Tyra to finish serving her sentence.
While in prison Tyra has educated herself, participated in more than 200 self-help groups and learned to love the books she never got to read in school. She is now qualified to be a paralegal and has a job and housing waiting for her. Tyra says she looks forward to working with young people to encourage them to stay in school and live drug-free lives.
When Tyra once again breathes free air she will still be considered a convicted murderer. She and attorney Singleton vow to continue the fight to clear her name. I wish them luck.
And I continue to wonder how many others like Tyra Patterson are still unjustly held in prison.
UPDATE: Tyra Patterson was released from prison on Christmas Day, 2017.