When David Singleton took Tyra Patterson’s case, it was a very different type of case for OJPC. OJPC doesn’t typically pursue cases of wrongfully convicted people. But Tyra’s case was different — so many factors compounded to guarantee that Tyra didn’t get a fair trial.
Tyra was charged with murder in the death of 15-year-old Michelle Lai in 1994. She was one of five people charged in Lai’s shooting death in what was described as a “robbery gone wrong.”
The shooting happened in an alley near Tyra’s family’s apartment complex. At the sound of gunshots, Tyra called 911 and tried to help. When police said they wanted to ask her questions in hopes that she could help solve the case, she voluntarily went to the police station. She told her mom that she was “going to see if she could help.”
After 88 minutes of intense interrogation, Tyra was booked on a murder charge. She was 19-years-old, scared and uneducated. She didn’t know the co-defendants who were also charged in the murder.
Some evidence was excluded at trial — evidence that former jurors now say would led them not to convict Tyra. And Tyra wasn’t allowed to testify on her own behalf — she was told that she was “too hood” for the witness stand.
A series of stories by The Guardian — titled “The Injustice System” — explains the details of Tyra’s case. You can click to read the three-part series below.
In the end, Tyra was sentenced to 43 years to life in prison for a murder she did not commit. One woman charged with murder in the same case, LaShawna Keeney, admitted to firing the fatal shot that killed Michelle Lai. Because she pled guilty, Keeney was sentenced to 30 years to life. Tyra did not plead guilty.
“Tyra Patterson was punished for asserting her innocence,” David Singleton told The Guardian in 2016.
When the jury announced its verdict in Dec. 1995, Tyra stood in disbelief. She yelled, “But I didn’t do it!”
The #IAmTyraPatterson movement was born when people of political and celebrity influence recognized the injustice demonstrated in Tyra’s case and wanted to band together on her behalf.
Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, actress Alfre Woodard and “Mad Men” TV show creator Matthew Weiner were among those advocating for Tyra’s release.
In The Guardian’s series on Tyra, conservative Ohio lawmakers Peggy Lehner and Bill Beagle were quoted, explaining their belief in Tyra’s innocence and their support of her cause. Read the excerpt below:
The Ohio senator (Lehner) said she saw “injustice upon injustice” in reviewing Patterson’s case. The outcome of the prosecution, she believes, was distorted by race: Lehner, a white woman, thinks Patterson, a black woman, was treated unequally.
“What happened to Tyra would never have happened to me, I am convinced of that. Same circumstances, I wouldn’t have ended up in prison. You think about that, and it’s sort of sobering.”
Lawmakers on all ends of the political spectrum became advocates for Tyra. Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters, a staunch Republican, said Tyra’s case is the first he’s seen during his 18-year career in which he advocated for someone’s release from prison.
Children at DePaul Cristo Rey High School in Cincinnati became very interested in Tyra’s case as part of a religion class. One student wrote and recorded a song, titled “Have Mercy On Her,” to plead for Tyra’s clemency.
Six of Tyra’s former jurors later said they would not have voted to convict Tyra had they seen evidence that was excluded from the trial.
The following excerpt was written by Nancy Day, a juror who later advocated for Tyra’s release from prison:
“I had serious doubts about Tyra’s guilt at the time I voted to convict her. I could tell she wasn’t really a part of the group that committed the crimes — she had just found herself at the wrong place at the wrong time. But we didn’t have the proof to back up my instinct.
It turned out the evidence existed — it just wasn’t presented at trial.”
The strongest voice on Tyra’s behalf was likely that of surviving victim Holly Lai Holbrook, whose sister Michelle was murdered in the 1994 shooting. Now, Holly has gone public to corroborate Tyra’s innocence and ask Governor Kasich to release Tyra. Click here for the full story or watch the video below:
Although Tyra and Holly have not met or spoken to one another, Tyra knows that Holly’s decision to defend her and to tell the truth took an immeasurable amount of courage.
In Nov. 2017, Tyra was granted parole. You can watch a video of her family’s reaction to the news below:
Tyra is eternally grateful to many people. She’s grateful to the people who called the Governor; to the parole board who granted her freedom; to the people who spoke on her behalf in public and in private; to the friends who sent prayers and good thoughts on her behalf; and to the staff, donors and board of OJPC who fought tirelessly for her freedom. Every single person helped make her homecoming possible.
Tyra was released from prison on Christmas Day, 2017. She spent Christmas with her family for the first time in more than two decades.
But Tyra’s journey isn’t over yet — to clear her name, Tyra needs a pardon from Gov. John Kasich. Until then, she’s still a convicted murdered in the eyes of the law.
Tyra also wants to “pay it forward.” Today, she works full-time as a paralegal at OJPC, where she helps others navigate the criminal justice system. She also works to mentor children, encouraging them to stay in school and pursue their passions.
Tweet Governor Kasich directly and ask him to pardon Tyra Patterson. Make sure to place a period before @JohnKasich so all can see your tweet to the Governor. #FreeTyra #TyraPatterson #IAmTyraPatterson
Spring is a time of renewal, a time when we plant seeds we hope will one day flower. For twenty years, OJPC has planted seeds of a different sort: seeds of criminal justice reform.
Please enjoy our 2016 annual report and learn more about the seeds we’ve grown and the seeds we are still planting.
March 25, 2017 – Featuring David Singleton, this op-ed published in the New York Times looks at the big picture of criminal justice reform now.
For most of the mass incarceration era, few reform groups actively recruited people with criminal convictions as participants, let alone as leaders. As David Singleton, a former public defender and the executive director of the Ohio Justice and Policy Center in Cincinnati, told me: “Some advocates have been arrogant in thinking that we know better how to speak for people who have been affected by the policies we want to change. We perhaps unconsciously dismiss those we try to serve as less than capable.”
This is slowly changing. Mr. Singleton says that some of his center’s most effective spokesmen were once incarcerated. “They are the true experts about our criminal justice system,” he says. “And even more than that, there is no substitute for people in positions of power getting to know and see the humanity of folks who are behind bars or have returned home.”
February 21, 2017 – Cincinnati’s WCPO sat down with Dorianne Mason to celebrate the proud tradition of Cincinnati’s African-American lawyers.
“As an attorney at the Ohio Justice and Policy Center, a nonprofit public interest law firm in downtown Cincinnati, Dorianne Mason works to ensure that nobody’s legal history can hold them back.”
January 27, 2017 – Tiffanny Smith recounts the story of supporting Gary Robert’s in his work opening up access to adequate medical care in prison, for himself and others. We’d like to thank the Impact Fund for their support in this vital work.
“When I saw Gary last spring, he was not the man I had known years ago. He was withdrawn and quiet. He talked about his health and that he was resigned to dying.”
We can't light new pathways through the justice system without your support!