Diane Dimond: How many Tyra Pattersons are there?
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.
Patterson, 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, Patterson and her friend Becca Stidham were in the wrong place at the wrong time. While walking down the street one day, 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. Patterson admits she instinctively bent down and picked it up. Then, she says, as she and Stidham ran from the scene, they heard a shot. They had no way of knowing that a young woman named LaShawna Keeney was about to commit the murder.
The frightened teens said they ran to Patterson’s nearby apartment and, once inside, she immediately called 911 for help. “I heard a gunshot,” Patterson told the operator. “Please, hurry up and come.”
The next day, the two voluntarily went to the police station to tell them what they knew. Patterson 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, Patterson says, the detective’s words stunned her. He said: “You’re a liar. I have witnesses. You killed a young girl. You are going down for murder.” And that is exactly what happened. Patterson was sentenced to 43 years to life in prison for being an accessory to aggravated robbery and murder. Keeney, who confessed to being the shooter, would be sentenced to less — 30 years to life.
Patterson, an African-American who never passed sixth grade and somehow survived a miserable poverty-plagued childhood, was just 19 years old at the time. She says she succumbed to hours and hours of interrogation and confessed because she just “wanted to go home.”
For some inexplicable reason, Patterson’s lawyer never called Stidham 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 Patterson’s frantic 911 call.
In addition, jurors didn’t learn about two important sworn statements. One was from the Keeney, who said: “Tyra actually tried to stop the robbery. She walked up to me and told me to leave the victims alone.” The second was from an eyewitness who had been walking her dog nearby. It said 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 & Policy Center, took up Patterson’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 Gov. John Kasich and amassed a group of supporters ranging from Hollywood stars to the former Ohio attorney general. Others also stepped up to help Patterson, including Holly Lai Holbrook, the sister of the murder victim. She supports Pattersons’ version of events and believes she was not involved in her sister’s murder.
And get this: Six of the 12 jurors that heard Patterson’s case and voted guilty now say that if they had known back then what they know now about the murder — especially that Patterson was the one who called 911 for help — they never would have voted to convict. They joined the campaign to get the governor to free Patterson. The plea was ignored.
Last week, the Ohio parole board announced that Patterson is to be granted parole effective on or before this Christmas Eve. The board rejected the prosecutor’s call for Patterson to finish serving her sentence.
While in prison, Patterson 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. She says she looks forward to working with young people to encourage them to stay in school and live drug-free lives.
When Patterson once again breathes free air, she will still be considered a convicted murderer. She and 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.
To find out more about Diane Dimond, visit her website at www.dianedimond.com. Her latest book, “Thinking Outside the Crime and Justice Box,” is available on Amazon.com.