After more than two decades behind bars, Tyra Patterson became a free woman on Christmas Day—but not because she was exonerated for a crime she has staunchly insisted she didn't commit. Rather, she was released on parole after serving 23 years of a life sentence for the 1994 murder of Michelle Lai, a 15-year-old whose sister even acknowledged was killed by someone other than Patterson. Patterson's case received more attention than most, thanks in part to a three-part Guardian special report that ran in 2016, and the fight isn't quite over. Here's a look at the crime and the aftermath:
- The crime: Lai was out "rogueing," or stealing from garages, with sister Holly Lai and three others on the night of Sept. 20. They were in Holly's Chevrolet Chevette in an alley when a group that included Patterson came upon the car. The Dayton Daily News reports some members of Patterson's group started "antagonizing" the girls in the car and robbed them. Things quickly turned physical, and LaShawna Keeney shot Lai.
- The necklace: Candy Brogan was one of the girls in the Chevette and had a necklace ripped off her during the robbery—and that necklace is why Patterson spent decades in prison. The Guardian reports that under Ohio law, a person who participates in a robbery that results in murder can be charged with murder. In a videotaped confession, Patterson admitted to being the one who took the necklace; she was charged with "aggravated murder" as a result.
- But about that confession: The Daily News reports Patterson said she only confessed to taking the necklace after being interrogated for hours, and that Dayton police Detective Tom Lawson implied that copping to robbery would make for a much better outcome for her "than going down for murder."
- And then there's this: The Daily News in 2013 outlined other "potentially persuasive evidence" in her clemency application: While everyone with Patterson took off, she was the one who called 911, a detail that wasn't shared at trial and that jury members subsequently said would have changed their minds had they known; a lie detector test showed she was being truthful when she said she didn't "physically" steal the necklace; and five witnesses were also found to be truthful via polygraph when they said Patterson tried to stop Kenney. And then there's Holly Lai's changing testimony: In Kellie Johnson's trial, she said Johnson took the necklace; at Patterson's trial, she pointed the finger at Patterson.
- A 'major boost in the case': In December 2016, the Guardian reported on a "major boost" for Patterson: Holly Lai came forward to say that on the night of the murder, she pointed out Patterson to cops as someone who had nothing to do with the crime, and she revealed she sent Ohio Gov. John Kasich a letter in April 2016 that said: "I feel bad that Tyra has been in prison so long for crimes I now believe she did not commit. ... I want to focus on what I can do to help obtain Tyra's freedom and right the wrong she has suffered. ... For a long time I didn't want to publicly support Tyra's release because I was fearful and anxious about how my family would respond. But I've decided that what's more important is that I tell the truth."
- Parole: Patterson was twice denied parole, but the Ohio Parole Board on Oct. 24 voted in favor of her release. In its reports on the parole board hearing, the Daily News noted that Patterson counted five state senators, an ex-Ohio attorney general, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, and Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner among her supporters.
- Patterson's thoughts upon release: The Daily News quotes her as saying, "I am not the victim. Holly Lai is a hero, and she has been an advocate for me."
- What's next: The former sixth-grade dropout is now a certified paralegal and will work for the Cincinnati-based Ohio Justice & Policy Center. "It’s not over," she says. "We're going to do great things. There are a lot of people in prison who are innocent." And it's not over for Patterson's case, report WKEF. Her attorney says they plan to bring her case back to court in hopes of having her conviction overturned; David Singleton says some of the new evidence he presents will be connected to Holly Lai.
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