Tyra Patterson: Every day is a second chance

Tyra Patterson spent 23 years in prison for a crime she says she did not commit; now she wants to give back.

The one-bedroom apartment Tyra Patterson must return to each night as part of her probation curfew sits above a Jamaican natural foods store on a bustling street in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood.

Family and friends donated furniture, lamps and paintings. A pair of running shoes sits next to the door, waffles from Taste of Belgium are tossed on top of the refrigerator and a journal is placed on a wooden kitchen table.

Little hints of her incarceration show through her habits, when she rolls her clothes into tight, little balls before putting them away in a drawer or when she reaches for a prison-issued bar of soap to wash her face.

Patterson, who grew up in east Dayton, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison at age 19 for the murder and robbery of 15-year-old Michelle Lai on Sept. 20, 1994.

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Now 42, Patterson was paroled on Christmas Day after Lai’s sister — Holly Lai Holbrook — wrote a letter to Ohio Gov. John Kasich in 2016 vouching for her innocence.

Lai Holbrook, who watched her sister get shot that night, told Kasich: “I no longer believe that Tyra participated in the robbery that led to Michelle’s murder. I believe it is wrong for Tyra to stay locked up.”

Various politicians and celebrities — including the documentary filmmaker Ken Burns — got behind Patterson’s innocence claims. Burns posted a Facebook video in 2016 while holding a sign that says “I am Tyra Patterson.”

Just a little more than a month into her new freedom, Patterson — like the thousands of inmates who get paroled from Ohio prisons each year — is transitioning to life on the outside. In 2015, approximately 9,386 inmates were paroled from the prison system and 21,343 were released, according to the latest data from the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation & Correction.

» STAYING WITH THE STORY: Tyra Patterson to speak at Wright State tonight

For many, that freedom will be short-lived. A 2012 study showed an overall three-year recidivism rate for inmates released from Ohio prison was about 30 percent.

Patterson has had some struggles since getting out — Fifth Third Bank, for example, first denied a request to open a bank account because she had only her state-issued ID — but in most respects her story bears little resemblance to the bulk of Ohio’s imprisoned population.

Patterson had prominent people fighting for her release. Most inmates don’t.

In prison, she earned her GED, paralegal certificate, furthered her education through several programs and even learned a little Spanish and Arabic. Before prison, she had a limited ability to read or write after dropping out of school.

And when she left prison she had a good job waiting for her: as a paralegal for the Ohio Justice & Policy Center in Cincinnati, which works to protect the rights of prisoners and those who leave prison.

‘Passion to run’

Petite with her hair combed back in a slick bun, Patterson looks nothing like the inmate she was for 23 years of her life. When she first started work she was surprised to learn she could wear jeans on occasion. She quickly acclimated to work life, with appointments scribbled on her calendar behind her desk and voice mails waiting on her phone.

David Singleton, the justice & policy center’s executive director, has represented Patterson since November 2012 and was instrumental in the fight for her release. He said Patterson represents the injustice of a flawed system. But Patterson doesn’t seem to dwell on time lost and says she doesn’t want people to feel sorry for her. She wants to focus on her work.

Singleton said Patterson will rotate duties at the nonprofit, and he and Patterson are currently working on a case with Steven Drizen, a wrongful conviction attorney famous for his work highlighted in the Netflix documentary series “Making A Murderer.”

» IN-DEPTH COVERAGE:Convict seeks clemency, says she was pressured into false confession

Patterson is also training for the Flying Pig Marathon in Cincinnati with former Ohio congresswoman Jean Schmidt, an avid marathoner who said she was taken by Patterson’s drive and leadership and impressed by the fact that she organized a 5k run while in prison.

Schmidt took Patterson shopping — for running gear, a professional suit and her first pair of heels at Ann Taylor. That’s another examples of Patterson’s unique post-prison life. Not many former inmates are mentored by a former member of Congress.

“This girl’s got a passion to run,” Schmidt said. “I want to get her across that finish line. She’s getting stronger and stronger.”

Schmidt, a Republican whose nickname in Congress was “Mean Jean,” visited Patterson in prison. “You could see the innocence across her face,” she said. “I liked her from the get-go.”

Patterson knows her life doesn’t mirror the typical parolee and she wants to shine a spotlight on the thousands of prisoners who struggle after they are released.

At the nonprofit, Patterson is working to pair recently paroled convicts with re-entry mentors — people who can help them adjust to life after release.

Patterson herself has 15 mentors — politicians, a rabbi, a prosecutor, lawyers and social justice advocates among them — and they help her with everything from stocking her fridge to keeping up an exercise regimen. She said getting support is vital to making a successful transition.

“They cannot just throw us out there with $75 and no direction,” she said.

“If I didn’t have the people that I have in my life … it would’ve been much harder. I feel like starting this re-entry program with mentors, pairing up with them, will give [offenders] confidence, hope and direction. I’m determined to do that. I want to give back.”

‘I don’t want to forget’

A lot of what happened on Sept. 20, 1994, is still a little murky. Lai, and a group of other girls — including her sister Holly — were out “roguing,” or stealing from garages. As they sat in a Chevy Chevette in an alley near Smithville Road, they got into a verbal altercation with another group of girls, including Patterson and the girl who pulled the trigger that killed Lai: LaShawna Keeney.

Keeney pleaded guilty to aggravated murder in the case and received a life sentence. Patterson did not fire the shot — and says she was not involved in the robbery — but under Ohio law accomplices to murder can get the same punishment as killers. Patterson has maintained that Dayton police coerced her into confessing on camera to a robbery she didn’t commit, which opened her up to the aggravated murder conviction. Her defense team also neglected to enter into evidence the 911 call Patterson made to police, saying, “I heard a gunshot.” Not everything she said during the call was accurate, but her supporters have pointed out that while the others were fleeing the scene after the shooting, Patterson was calling police.

Coerced confessions are often obtained from juveniles and young people, according to nonprofit The Innocence Project. More than one out of four people wrongfully convicted but later exonerated by DNA evidence made a false confession or incriminating statement, the group says. Factors that influence false confession during a police interrogation include: duress, coercion, intoxication, diminished capacity, mental impairment, ignorance of the law, fear of violence and misunderstanding the situation.

Patterson has said she was told she could go home if she confessed to the robbery. She entered prison in 1995, and after years of maintaining her innocence her case began attracting national attention. But it was Lai Holbrook’s plea that ultimately got her sentence revoked.

Patterson said she told Singleton that Lai Holbrook would eventually come forward. “I would always say, ‘David, Holly is going to come forward,’” she said. “She’s a true hero, honestly. I know that her and I looked at each other that night and it was an energy.”

Patterson says she has never stopped thinking about Michelle Lai and her family.

“I don’t want to forget,” she said.

Life on the outside

Although she was released from prison, Patterson has not been exonerated. She is currently fighting for clemency, and is awaiting word from the governor. A Kasich spokesman told this news organization there is no update on Patterson’s clemency request.

When Patterson filed for clemency in 2013, it was opposed by the victim’s father, who told the Dayton Daily News at the time that it would send “the wrong message.”

“These criminals are going to say what they need to say to get out of prison,” Frank Lai said at the time. “(Patterson) made a decision 19 years ago and she was part of the decision that took my daughter’s life.” Lai could not be reached for this story.

Leon Daidone, chief of the Montgomery County Prosecutor’s criminal division, said the community needs to be reminded that Lai, who was gunned down at the age of 15, is the true victim. The family continues to seek justice for her, Daidone said: “While they acknowledge the defendant’s release, they continue to feel that she has never taken ownership of her role in Michelle’s death.”

Unless she is pardoned, Patterson has to abide by specific rules outlined in her probation — including restrictions that prohibit her from crossing state lines, writing letters to current inmates or working with juveniles without court approval.

Sen. Peggy Lehner, R-Ohio, who met Patterson years ago, said some of the restrictions make little sense because they make it difficult for her to share her story in a “refreshingly honest way.”

“What is the logic here? I think we need to start questioning the logic of what we do,” Lehner said. “We want to punish and continue punishing people, and I think that needs to change. People have prepared to re-enter society — are we prepared to accept them?”

Adjusting to life after prison

Patterson’s first taste of freedom came on Christmas Day at her brother’s house in Kettering, where she opened gifts and curled up on the couch with her family. The first food she ate? “Potato salad,” she said. “I wanted some potato salad. I just remember eating everything I could get my hands on.”

Her days now include speaking engagements at local schools and colleges and her work at the justice & policy center. She is often reminded of the technology advances made during the more than two decades she was incarcerated. For example, before leaving prison she had never used a cell phone and, “The first time I saw that a toilet could flush all by itself, I jumped out of my skin.”

Nighttime makes her uneasy, particularly when she hears a not-too-distant gunshot in her inner-city neighborhood.

Still, she knows better than to complain. “You know I have some people saying, aren’t you being pulled into too many directions? And I’m like no, this time it’s the right direction,” she said. “I love it.”

‘She’s mentoring me’

Patterson has already forced changes in the community. Last month, scrutiny over Fifth Third’s decision to refuse to let her open a bank account led to an apology by the bank and an announcement that it is changing its policy.

“We can now remove the time requirements associated with state identification cards and driver’s licenses,” the bank said in a statement.

Cincinnati City Councilwoman Tamaya Dennard — one of Patterson’s many mentors — said the former inmate has broadened her knowledge about the criminal justice system and caused her to think differently about coerced confessions, false imprisonments and recidivism.

“It’s funny she uses the word mentoring, because I feel like she’s mentoring me,” Dennard said. “The fact that she took a devastating situation and used it to grow and better herself is really … the essence of who she is.”

Around the justice center, posters about Patterson’s case are prominently displayed. But a small sign near her desk echoes a message that seems more symbolic of her life: Every day is a second chance.

Singleton said Patterson represents an entire population of people who have been overlooked by the justice system.

Because of that, and who she is, he said: “I’m willing to walk through fire for her.”

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