Updated July 2015
For the past twenty years, forty-year-old Tyra Patterson has been imprisoned for crimes that new evidence indicates she did not commit. Her conviction resulted from a perfect storm of events, including her own poor – but not felonious – choices; a false confession made under intense police pressure; and appallingly ineffective representation at trial. As will be discussed below, a recent, comprehensive investigation of Tyra’s case reveals that she is very likely innocent and was wrongfully convicted. In fact, six of Tyra’s jurors have submitted affidavits stating that they would have never convicted Tyra had they known, among other things, that she called 911 to get help for the victims after the shooting, evidence that Tyra’s defense lawyers did not put before the jury.
But Tyra’s story is not only one of wrongful conviction but is also one of transformation. Despite her unjust conviction, Tyra has kept a positive attitude and transformed herself from a sixth grade drop-out into an educated, productive woman, who upon release will seek to make a meaningful difference in the lives of young people. Powerful, unusual allies, including a former Republican Attorney General of Ohio and several politically conservative elected officials, have met Tyra and are urging Governor Kasich to commute Tyra’s sentence to time served.
Still, Tyra faces an uphill fight. Recently, the Ohio Parole Board recommended that Ohio Governor John Kasich deny clemency, a recommendation Governor Kasich is free to reject.
A Perfect Storm
On September 20, 1994, a chain of events led to the fatal shooting of fifteen-year-old Michelle Lai in the presence of her sister, cousin, and two friends in Dayton, Ohio. Though the actions of many contributed to the escalation of the tragic situation, only three women remain behind bars nearly twenty years later—LaShawna Keeney (who shot Lai), Angela Thuman, (who played an active role in the robberies), and Tyra Patterson (who actually tried to stop the incident). Joe Letts and Kellie Johnson, both of whom were also convicted in relation to the case, have since been released.
A few hours before the incident, then nineteen-year-old Tyra was smoking marijuana with her friend, Rebecca Stidham, and acquaintance Aaron Moten. Later in the night, the three ended up in a parking lot behind Tyra’s apartment building where LaShawna Keeney, Angie Thuman, and Kellie Johnson and Joe Letts were robbing five women in a parked car. Tyra did not know LaShawna, Angie or Kellie, and was only acquainted with Joe. The driver of the parked car, Holly Lai, pleaded for help with Tyra, who was observing from a distance. Tyra asked LaShawna to leave the victims alone, but decided to leave after LaShawna cursed her and told her to mind her business.
As Tyra and Rebecca began to walk away from the scene, Tyra made the biggest mistake of her life: she picked up a shiny necklace from the ground that she knew one of the robbers had discarded. Although at most Tyra committed a misdemeanor by leaving the scene with property belonging to one of the victims, her poor choice would eventually result in her being charged with the more serious offenses of robbery and murder charges, crimes she did not commit.
Tyra and Rebecca continued walking and heard a gunshot, which caused them to run the rest of the way to Tyra’s apartment. When they arrived, they heard a voice outside screaming that someone had been shot. Tyra grabbed her phone and called 911 to get help for the shooting victim. Though Tyra was aware that this act could expose her to police for questioning about the incident and threats from others at the scene, she valued the victim’s well-being over her own.
Hours later, Tyra was called to the police station for questioning. Tyra truthfully told the detectives that she did not rob anyone, tried to stop the robbery and called 911, and that she picked up a necklace from the ground as she left the scene. The detective yelled and screamed at Tyra off camera, telling her that that she was a “fucking liar” and that she would spend the rest of her life in prison for murder. Eventually, as a result of the detective’s pressure, Tyra relented and decided to confess to something she did not do – ripping the necklace from one of the victims, which constitutes robbery. She did so after the detective told her that it was better if she went down on robbery than murder charges. And by admitting to robbery, Tyra unwittingly also confessed to murder under the felony-murder doctrine, which allows anyone who commits a felony during which someone is killed to be charged with the more serious offense of murder. Tyra’s false confession would prove to be the most powerful evidence against Tyra at trial.
The representation Tyra received from her two public defenders was appalling. Her lawyers decided not to play the 911 call for the jury, refused to consider calling Tyra to testify because she talked “ghetto,” never challenged Tyra’s confession as false, decided not to call Rebecca as a witness, and offered no evidence or reason why Tyra should be acquitted of all of the charges. (To read more about the evidence, click here)Not surprisingly, the jury convicted Tyra of aggravated murder and four counts of aggravated robbery. The trial judge sentenced Tyra to forty-three-years-to-life in prison, which was more time than shooter Keeney, who pled guilty, received. Fortunately, in 2011, Governor Ted Strickland commuted Tyra’s sentence to sixteen-years-to-life, making her immediately parole eligible. But the Parole Board refused to release Tyra in 2011, continuing her next release hearing to 2018.
In 2013, Tyra sought clemency again on the basis of actual innocence. The Parole Board initially refused to grant a hearing but backtracked after pressure from Republican elected officials, and held a clemency hearing in January 2015. However, at the hearing, the Parole Board refused to let Tyra tell her side of events in violation of its own rules, and made it clear through its treatment of Tyra’s supporters, which included two state senators and a former United States Representative, that the Board would not recommend release. By a ten to two vote, the Board recommended against releasing Tyra. Tyra’s clemency application is awaiting final decision by Governor Kasich.
Tyra started smoking marijuana at age eleven and quit Wendy’s, her only regular job, in her late teens due to her inability to make correct change. She entered prison with only a sixth grade education and did not know how to read or write. Since the age of nineteen, Tyra has been making the best of an unfortunate situation. She worked hard to earn her GED – taking it four times before she finally passed on her fifth try – and earned a boiler engineer’s license while behind bars. In addition, she has participated in 200 self-improvement programs. She recently completed a paralegal certificate in hopes that she will work with the Ohio Justice & Policy Center upon release. With some of her limited prison income, she buys beads to make jewelry to send to homeless shelters. She serves on the Warden’s Advisory Council, which solves problems between inmates. She also tutors other prisoners regularly.
If given the opportunity to return to the community, Tyra plans to speak to young people about the importance of education and to urge them to avoid illegal drugs. Tyra could have easily became bitter about her situation and her innocence. Instead, she made a conscious effort to better herself, plan for the possibility of release, and reflect upon how she could help others who also endured childhood struggles. The personal growth that Tyra has actively sought the past twenty years and her plans for her future provide another justification for her clemency.