What’s next after you serve 23 years for a crime you didn’t commit?

Meet Tyra Patterson.

Photo credit: Jess Mador of WYSO Public Radio/Diana Ofosu
Photo credit: Jess Mador of WYSO Public Radio/Diana Ofosu

For Tyra Patterson, it didn’t fully hit her until she took her first bath in over 23 years.

“That’s when I really felt it,” she says, “I was free.”

Until last Christmas, Tyra had been serving out a prison sentence for a crime she insists she didn’t commit — first in the Ohio Reformatory for Women, then the Dayton Correctional Institution, and finally, the Northeast Reintegration Center. Her story reveals many of the problems in the U.S. criminal justice system.

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On September 20, 1994, when Patterson was 19 years old, she was implicated in the deadly robbery of 15-year-old Michelle Lai. That night, she was walking with a friend and they ran into a group of five people Patterson barely knew, and who they decided to join. The group encountered a group of five other teenagers in a car. The details of what happened afterward are murky, but one thing isn’t: Patterson was not the one who shot Lai and left her with a fatal gunshot wound to the head. After attempting to get one of the perpetrators to back down, Patterson ran home and called 911.

At the time of her initial trial, the odds were stacked against her. Patterson, who is biracial with a black father and white mother, wasn’t savvy of the legal system. Having dropped out of school around the age of 11, she was also illiterate. She was in the possession of a necklace of one of the victims (she says she simply picked it up off the ground) and Lai’s older sister who witnessed the crime identified Patterson as the one who shot the gun.  

The court proceedings were shoddy, her legal team at that time admit they didn’t give it their all, major pieces of evidence were kept out of the courtroom including her 911 call, and she was pressured into falsely confessing that she grabbed the necklace from one of Lai’s friends.  The necklace was a key part of the state’s argument that Patterson was an accomplice in the deadly shooting. She was convicted of aggravated murder and aggravated robbery and received a hefty sentence of 43 years to life in prison.

Two years ago, 21 years after the incident, Holly Lai Holbrook, Michelle Lai’s older sister, finally came forward and said that detectives pressured her into confessing that Patterson grabbed the necklace from a victim. Lai Holbrook, convinced of Patterson’s innocence, composed and sent a poignant letter to Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R). Armed with a new legal team (David Singleton of the Ohio Justice and Policy Center), a  three- part expose in the Guardian, celebrity attention, and one massive social media campaign, Patterson walked out of prison just in time to spend Christmas Day with her family.

“It was like I had never left,” Patterson said of that day.

But she did not walk out a fully free woman. Instead, Patterson walked out of the Northeast Reintegration Center facility on parole for five years, with steep conditions and no clear path to being pardoned (released from the legal consequences of the crime) or exonerated (found innocent of the crime).  

“I didn’t become what they wanted me to. I didn’t become a prisoner.”

Freedom is still far away

“Getting released from prison is not the end of the story,” says Vanessa Potkin, who works as the Director of Post-Conviction Litigation for the Innocence Project.

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A conviction can affect where a person can live, their employment prospects, education opportunities, the kinds of people they can be around (like children), and much more according to the National Inventory of Collateral Consequences of a Conviction— a database that lets you search for the kinds of restrictions enforced by state and crime.

“Wrongfully convicted people have many reasons to keep fighting to prove their innocence and part of that has to do with the collateral consequence of conviction,” Potkin says. “The American Bar Association had done a study recently on the effects of having a conviction and at the moment you are convicted of a crime, you have a good 50,000 restrictions on your life.”

Patterson’s parole restrictions include not being able to spend the night anywhere but her apartment, she cannot leave the state of Ohio without consent from her parole officer, and she cannot be around children. That last stipulation is extremely vexing for her.

“It’s something that’s only deemed for sex offenders,” Patterson says.

Patterson has younger family members that she’ll have to get special permission to be around. This kind of stipulation also hinders a major aspiration of hers.

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“I think the board did this, because Tyra is so gifted with young people and she wants to mentor young people about avoiding mistakes she made like dropping out of school and smoking marijuana at a young age. So there’s not really a good explanation for that restriction for her other than to frustrate her,” says her lawyer David Singleton.  

There’s also the chance that the victim having been a minor at the time factored into that.

As Singleton puts it, thanks to the restrictions, the conviction still “dehumanizes her.”

Patterson is far from alone

Patterson’s story, that of a person wrongfully convicted of a crime, is one of many.

Today, there are 2.2 million people incarcerated — a dramatic increase from 500,000 in the 1980s and a number that continues to rise. While black Americans make up 13 percent of the population, they are incarcerated at a rate of 5.1 times that of white people, according to a report by the Sentencing Project.

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“We have a broken system in this country. It’s not just an isolated incident,” says Potkin, who estimates that even if we were to consider that only one percent of those incarcerated were wrongfully convicted, that would be 22,000 people.

“We believe we have a presumption of innocence in this country, that itself is debatable. Once you’re convicted [of a crime] there’s not even the fiction that you have the presumption of innocence. It’s extraordinarily difficult to overturn a wrongful conviction even with concrete proof of innocence. We’ve had people on our Supreme Court say, ‘If you’ve had a fair trial, if the process was fair, then it doesn’t matter if you’re innocent.’”

In 2016, only 166 people were exonerated, according to the National Registry of Exonerations (NRE), and that was a record year.

“A lot of these people are choosing between being free or being innocent.”

A separate NRE report on race and wrongful convictions found that African Americans make up 47 percent of the those wrongfully convicted. Innocent black people are seven times more likely to be convicted of murder than innocent white people. White and black people use illegal drugs at about the same rates, yet innocent black people are 12 times more likely to be convicted of drug crimes than innocent white people.

People charged with misdemeanor crimes, like non-violent drug offenses, are often in the same predicament as those convicted of serious felonies. “A lot of these people are choosing between being free or being innocent,”says Potkin.

In these cases, people are offered some kind of plea deal or bargain, which can feel like the best outcome when someone can’t afford to post bail, doesn’t have the confidence or the interest to fight this in court, or isn’t fully aware of what resources are available to them.

Even after evidence casting doubt on the conviction is brought forth, it’s extremely difficult to prove innocence, because it’s extremely difficult to change the perception of someone thought to be a criminal.

When the concept of a wrongful conviction is brought up, a now infamous and tragic example is Kalief Browder, who took his own life after awaiting trial for more than three years in prison on Rikers Island in New York for a robbery he insisted he didn’t commit. Spending over two years  in solitary confinement on Rikers, a prison complex known for rights violations that has been heavily petitioned to be shut down for good, and the general overarching pressure of his charges had a devastating effect on Browder.

“It’s not just about removing barriers that come with a conviction, but also there is something psychologically significant about having your innocence recognized by society,” Potkin says.

Right place, right time

One thing that is very intriguing about Patterson is her sense of calm and her peace about what happened to her. She has the kind of smile you can hear through a phone, a laugh that is melodic, and she’s extremely open.

“I’ve always been this way. Even that night. When I think back to that night, I was trying to help, you know. When I went up to [LaShawna Keeny] to try to get them to leave Michelle alone and when I called 911. I was trying to help,” she said.

“[The] big lesson of this case is to never write people off.”

While in prison for a crime she didn’t commit, Patterson said she spent her time as productively as possible. She entered prison unable to read and write and left having completed her GED and over 200 certificates and programs. She was someone her fellow inmates could depend on and come to when they were having conflicts or needed someone to talk to. She was in charge of a group of women and kept them in line with dignity and respect.

“You can choose how you want to spend your time in prison. You can be lazy, you can become the prison. But I didn’t want to. I didn’t become what they wanted me to. I didn’t become a prisoner,” says Patterson.

She knew the day of her release would come, so she wanted to be ready.

For her, that meant having a game plan for what she would want to do once back in society. Right now, Patterson has her heart set on starting a reentry program that will help those like her reenter society and avoid recidivism.

“If it weren’t for so many people coming and helping me I wouldn’t be where I am right now,” she says.

Tyra Patterson (right) with her lawyer David Singleton of the Ohio Justice and Policy Center. (CREDIT: Jess Mador of WYSO Public Radio)
Tyra Patterson (right) with her lawyer David Singleton of the Ohio Justice and Policy Center. (CREDIT: Jess Mador of WYSO Public Radio)

Patterson was met with a warm embrace by friends, family, and her community at large. She left prison with a job as a paralegal for the Ohio Justice and Policy Center, an apartment, and even stylists in the form of friends willing to help her. Right now, her mom is attempting to onboard her with the latest technology.

“I went to prison with a pager and now I have an iPhone S8,” Patterson says with a laugh.

She’s surrounded by positive people who are committed to keeping her on the right track, but more importantly she herself is dedicated.

“I just want to prove to them that they didn’t make a mistake, that I’m worthy,” she says.

Singleton and the Ohio Justice Policy Center (OJPC) are gearing up for the battle ahead. They are first looking to reduce her parole, and will fight to clear her name. Patterson at this point and time wants to do her best to avoid another drawn out courtroom battle, not because she’s tired of the process, but because she wants to spare Holly Lai Holbrook.

“She lost everything in coming forward for me, so I don’t want to put her through anymore,” says Patterson.

Singleton admitted that he was reluctant to take on her case when a OJPC board member asked him to because the OJPC focuses primarily on cases involving those who are likely guilty but still deserve better conditions. Finally, after meeting with another inmate in the Dayton Correctional Institution, he met with Patterson and heard her story. Through further investigating, Singleton became convinced of her innocence.

“[The] big lesson of this case is to never write people off. Tyra’s original legal team wrote her off and didn’t fight as hard for her as they could have. Fortunately Tyra didn’t write herself off and worked to educate herself and put herself in a position to succeed when she finally got her chance,” Singleton wrote in an email.

“I also learned something about not writing people off. I am convinced that part of the reason we got Tyra released was because of all the support we received from conservative republicans who I convinced to meet Tyra and advocate on her behalf with the Governor’s office. We are better as a society when we try to find common ground and work through our differences.”

Even though Patterson doesn’t do most cliches, one that actually holds true for her is that everything happens for a reason.

“I don’t hold any resentment towards anyone about anything,” she says. “I believe this all happened for a reason. I believe that I went through this so I can help others.”