On Christmas morning Tyra Patterson left a Cleveland prison after serving 23 years of a life sentence. She was a teenager in 1994 when she was convicted in connection with the robbery and murder of Dayton 15-year-old Michelle Lai.
Patterson always said her confession to robbery was coerced. Over the years her innocence claims garnered support, including from the murder-victim’s sister, Holly Lai Holbrook.
Last fall, a state board granted parole.
Since walking free on Christmas, Patterson has reunited with family and friends in the Miami Valley. She's begun the long, slow process of transitioning out of incarceration.
And she’s moved to Cincinnati. WYSO’s Jess Mador caught up with her there and has this story.
Tyra Patterson’s new apartment sits on a bustling corner framed by vacant and boarded buildings in downtown Cincinnati. She waves hello from a second-floor balcony as a visitor pulls up in front.
“Welcome to my place,” she says, opening and closing the front door.
“I always lock my door because I am a single woman living in this neighborhood. Even though I lived in prison, you would think that I would be OK with living here but because I lived in a gated community, literally, I felt protected. And I don't here. However, it's good because I live downtown and when I start my job, I can walk to work.”
When she went away to prison, Patterson says she was illiterate. Early in her sentence she learned to read and write and eventually got her GED.
Earlier in January she began her first-ever professional job, working as a paralegal at her attorney’s firm, The Ohio Justice and Policy Center.
“The reason why I took my paralegals course is because I wanted to give back, what they have given me, to others.”
Wearing jeans, a white sweater, and a big smile, Patterson leads me on a tour around the sunny apartment.
“This is my living room. It’s actually a two-bedroom apartment. I accidentally called my apartment a two-man cell. I said, a two-man. And my attorney corrected me. He said, two bedroom.”
This is her first apartment. Patterson is 42 years old. There’s a lot to catch up on. She has spent most of her life behind bars.
“It was more than half of my life,” she says. “But I've always known that this day was going to come forward. God prepared me and I wanted to be ready. Everyday I said the same prayer, that I didn’t want the time to make me miserable or hard or anything. I wanted to keep my same spirit and attitude, and I did. And I also knew that Holly Lai was going to come forward. I always knew that,” she says.
It was more than a year ago when Holly Lai Holbrook wrote a letter to Gov. John Kasich asking him to release Patterson.
Holbrook witnessed her sister Michelle’s killing. In the letter, Holbrook told the governor Patterson did not participate in the crimes that led to her sister’s murder.
Here’s Holbrook in an interview with The Guardian newspaper:
“Her being set free would set me free because I have been under all this bondage of hiding, but I am here to tell the truth and to tell the whole story, and I believe she deserves to be out of prison. I believe she deserved to be out of prison a long time ago,” she says in a video.
Holbrook told The Guardian she and the teenagers arrested after her sister’s shooting were pressured by police.
Patterson remembers her own interrogation. She says her robbery confession was false.
“I was young, I was uneducated. I didn't know the tactics that the detectives used. If you have someone telling you you murdered a 15-year-old-girl and you're crying and you're telling them, no, I didn't do anything, I was trying to help, I was trying to help,” she says. “You can actually see me being coached. I didn't want to make any mistakes in there because I was ready to go home, I wanted to go home.”
Montgomery County prosecutors have maintained there’s no evidence to support Patterson or Holbrook’s versions of events. Patterson was charged with aggravated murder and aggravated robbery. Her original sentence was 43 years to life.
Nonetheless, Patterson is hoping the governor may consider granting her a pardon. Her application for clemency is pending.
“It’s so important to reclaim your name. What happened with Michelle Lai was a senseless killing. And if I can change anything about that night, she would be here.”
Patterson says her adjustment to life outside prison has been emotional, even overwhelming at times.
“Something simple was, we went to a gas station. It was the first time I was able to pick out what type of juice I wanted, and I didn't know what kind I wanted and I just broke down and cried, and I cried and I hugged and I cried. I couldn't process it. And we stayed in that gas station for a whole hour. The bigger thing that surprised me the most was seeing how awesome my brothers have become men.”’
Patterson came home from prison to another surprise. Some volunteers had furnished the new apartment. Others had stocked the empty refrigerator with groceries. Others took her shopping at a thrift store to buy clothing for her new job.
The items were sorely needed. Patterson had nothing when she left prison.
“Everything you see. Everything in here has literally been donated,” she says.
Everything, including a Christmas tree volunteers set up and decorated in the corner of the living room.
“I still have my Christmas tree because I'm not ready to let go of it. And when I got out, of course I thought about Holly Lai and Michelle Lai on Christmas Day, and I also thought about what god has given me on his birthday. He gave me a gift because this never happened, it never happened with a parolee to get out on Christmas Day,” Patterson says.
Patterson is excited to get to work. She’s ready to stop depending on others for help. She wants to give back.
In addition to the staff at the Ohio Justice and Policy Center, Patterson has also been working with other criminal justice advocates and several state lawmakers on plans for a reentry program that, she says, would give women the resources they need to start new lives and avoid ending up back behind bars.
She says there is a shortage of services specifically geared toward women who are both locked up, and transitioning out of, prison.
“I have a business plan and the program will last, like, three months, where the girls are coming out and reentering into society, because if we make the right choices and get to the core of the problem we can help stop the ripple effect of people committing crimes and reverting back to what they know because no one believes in them.”
Choking up, Patterson says she wants other women leaving prison to experience the same support she’s felt since getting out.
“I have been around people that that I never thought would be around me. And that alone has given me this boost of confidence. And I know that I will be a success story because I’ve got a job, I have somewhere to go. I have my own home. I'm going to be OK,” she says. “I just wish it was so much more that we can do for others that are still there, that’s coming out to the same situation. That’s something that I'm going to be geared towards changing,” she says. “There are more Tyra Pattersons out there.”
For now, Patterson is focusing on settling into her new routine.
She knows it will take time to adjust to traffic, crowds and street noise. She’s still familiarizing herself with the route to and from her job in Cincinnati, and she’s studying for her upcoming drivers test.
Patterson is also keeping up two daily habits she says kept her from “breaking” behind bars: reading from her Bible and writing poetry in her journal.
Watch a video of Tyra Patterson reading her favorite poem, titled, "Me," below: