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Wrongfully convicted woman freed after 23 years starts work as a paralegal to fight for others


Tyra Patterson was released from prison last Christmas after serving 23 years for a murder she didn't commit.

Now, less than a month later, she's working as a paralegal alongside the lawyers who fought for her freedom.

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Patterson was 19-years-old when she was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the murder and robbery of 15-year-old Michelle Lai.

According to court records, Lai was in a car parked in an alley with a group of girlfriends when they got into a verbal altercation with one of Patterson’s friends.

Patterson says she tried to intervene but after the confrontation escalated she and a friend decided to leave the situation and walk home.

"While walking to my apartment me and my friend Rebecca heard a gunshot and we ran the rest of the way inside my apartment," she told our affiliate Fox 45 News. "As soon as we got inside we heard [Michelle's sister] Holly Lai scream for help."

According to court records, Patterson called 911 and asked them to send immediate help.

Even though the recording of the 911 call Patterson made after the shooting proves she was not present at the scene of the crime, her public defense council decided to withhold it as evidence at trial. Never even informing the jury of its existence.

Attorney David Singleton of the Ohio Justice and Policy Center took on Patterson’s case in 2012. When she told him about the call he asked the County prosecutor’s office to open their records and found the recording proving her innocence.

After the new found evidence was released to the public, six of the 12 members of the jury issued affidavits saying that if they had known about the call at trial, they would have found her not guilty.

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In an interview with WKRC Patterson explained why she falsely confessed to stealing the victim's necklace.

"I was scared. I was like well where are you taking me? He said, you're getting booked for murder. And I said why? I didn't do anything. And I knew then that I was tricked. That I was in big trouble."

She says one of the detectives told her, "It would be better to admit to robbery than murder."

Patterson was charged and convicted of robbery. At trial, the prosecution argued that since she confessed to robbing the victim, she was guilty of aiding and abetting in the murder.

Under Ohio law accomplices to murder can get the same punishment as killers.

Four other people Patterson was with the night of the crime were also convicted:

  • Lashawna Keeney, pleaded guilty to pulling the trigger and shooting Lai. She was sentenced to life in prison. In a 2013 affidavit, Keeney said Patterson was innocent and had actually tried to stop robbery. “She walked up to me and told me to leave the victims alone,” she wrote.
  • Angela Thuman, who is serving a life sentence for aggravated murder and robbery.
  • Joseph Letts, Keeney's then boyfriend served 13 years in prison before his murder conviction was overturned and he was released in 2008.
  • Kellie Johnson, who was 14 at the time and was held in detention until she turned 21. During the 1994 trial she testified that Patterson stole the necklace from the victims body after the shooting. 22 years later, she recanted her testimony and admitted to stealing the necklace and lying to police that it was Patterson. "Tyra is in there for nothing. If you all don't hear anything else I beg you, she don't need to be in there," she said in the taped interview which was played at Patterson's last parole hearing. "When the police called me I decided to put Tyra in it because I didn't want to go to jail but in the end I still went."

The victim's sister played a pivotal role in Patterson’s freedom.

On April 26, 2016 Holly Lai Holbrook, who was in the car with her sister when she was killed, wrote a letter to Ohio Governor John Kasich asking him to grant Patterson clemency.

In the letter she wrote that setting Patterson free would free her of the regret she feels for knowing Patterson wasn't there during the shooting but lying about it to police.

"She doesn’t deserve to be in jail, and I put her there. Her getting released would release me. I could finally say I did something right with my life.”

She went on: "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 about how I feel. When I heard about Tyra's confession, I assumed she must have been involved with the crimes. I no longer believe that Tyra participated in the robbery that led to Michelle's murder."

In October 2017, Patterson got the news, she'd been granted parole.

"Holly Lai is the hero, and I'm thankful that she was brave to come forward, and even advocate for me," said an emotional Patterson during an interview with WKRC.

"I want her in our family," her mother, Jeannie Patterson, said of Lai. "She is welcomed in our family."

On Christmas morning, Patterson was finally released after spending nearly 23 years in prison.

In pictures from the release, Patterson hugs friends and family. "It felt real when I kissed the ground," she told our affiliate Fox45 news.

"When I kissed my freedom and thanked God, that's when I knew I was free."

While most are quick to forget years spent in a cell, that time means everything to Patterson, whose second chance at life is just beginning.

On Tuesday, she arrived at the Ohio Justice and Policy Center in Cincinnati, for her first day of work as a paralegal alongside the man who fought for her freedom, her attorney David Singleton.

"She was in prison 23 years for something she didn't do, the dreams that she realized were a long time in the making. Delighted to have her as a colleague, thriving in a place that will allow her to soar,” said Singleton.

She says she wants to work for other inmates trapped with few resources in cases like hers.

"He took a chance on me. His kindness will not go in vain. I will be one person he can be proud of,” said Patterson.

Most of her expertise will be used to develop a mentorship program, for inmates who are re-entering into society.

"I know that most people, who are incarcerated and return to society, don't have the opportunity that I am having," she said. "We are here to change that."

As the 42-year-old settles into her new life and her new office, her biggest challenge is going to be adjusting to all the new technology she missed between 1994 and today.

She says the first thing on her list is learning how to use her new cell phone.

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