Dayton, Ohio – Before Christmas, Tyra Patterson was hard at work, finishing up a batch of homemade gifts.
“I wanted to stay connected with my family and friends, and my supporters and even people who I didn’t know,” said Patterson, who hoped to make 50 beaded bracelets by the holiday.
Patterson said it’s a lot of work but not difficult when she has the right tools.
For much of her life, that hasn’t been a given.
“We would literally take our nail clippers to be able to cut the string or whatever we needed to do but we was not allowed to have scissors,” she said.
Three years ago, Patterson was in prison, serving a 43-year sentence for aggravated murder and aggravated robbery stemming from a 1994 conviction.
Patterson still maintains her innocence.
Patterson’s Arrest and Conviction
Patterson was arrested for her alleged role in the killing of 15-year-old Michelle Lai.
According to Dayton Police, Patterson was one of five people who tried to rob Lai and a group of her friends.
Patterson was not the one who shot Lai, but she was convicted as an accomplice.
“I will never forget that day,” she said.
Patterson was 19 years old.
She said she was never involved in the robbery and instead rushed to the scene and called 911 when she heard the gunshot.
She said she was arrested and police coerced her into a false confession.
Patterson said they told her it would be better to take the fall for a robbery than the murder.
But instead she said they used the confession to convict her.
“If I had known anything, just a little bit about the judicial system or my rights, none of this would have happened,” she said.
Patterson dropped out of school at 11.
She said it was too hard to keep up as her family struggled with hunger and homelessness.
Prison gave her a second chance at education and she took it, she said.
Patterson’s Case Revisited
In prison she earned her GED and a certification in engineering.
She then started studying law.
“I wanted to know what went wrong with my case and I also wanted to be an advocate for other ladies,” Patterson said.
Her work caught the attention of the Ohio Justice and Policy Center and sparked a national movement called: “I am Tyra Patterson.”
As more information came out about the case, jurors began changing their minds about voting to convict and a key witness, Lai’s sister, Holly Lai, changed her story.
Holly Lai said she remembered pointing someone out to police at the scene and telling them she wasn’t a part of the crime.
Lai now believes that was Tyra Patterson.
She also said police never told her Patterson called 911.
Through this advocacy, Patterson was released on parole Christmas Day 2017 after 23 years in prison.
She said she can’t thank everyone enough, especially Holly Lai.
“Although I lost more than half of my life, she lost her sister,” she said.
After Patterson’s Release
Patterson quickly found a job at the Ohio Justice and Policy Center as a paralegal and a mentor for young people and incarcerated women.
“It was my way of giving back because I wanted to do so much more for people but I was limited,” she said.
Due to the terms of her parole, Patterson can’t travel much.
Every year at Christmastime, to remember her release, Patterson also does an act of service.
She usually does an act of service at homeless shelters or food pantries.
But this year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Patterson looked a little closer to home.
Her thoughts immediately went to her mother.
Jeannie Patterson visited her in prison every chance she got, she said.
Her commitment to her daughter made Patterson’s time in prison far more bearable.
“She never gave up,” Patterson said. “This was my moment to show her that she’s the best mother in the world.”
Since her release, Patterson has been saving up and she took the trip to her hometown in Dayton to give her mother a big surprise.
She knew nothing could top her release, but Patterson hopes a house is a close second.
Patterson closed on the single-story home in early December, moving her mother in over the next weeks.
“She’s blessed me with the furniture, the home, everything,” Jeannie Patterson said. “And it’s of herself. She’s not buying my love. This is her gift to me.”
Patterson said she wrote her mother little notes everyday in prison to show her how much her support meant to her.
The glass bowl, holding many of the notes, is featured prominently in her mother’s new house.
“You have instilled so many positive things within me and I utilize my wisdom everyday because of you,” said Tyra Patterson as she read the notes she wrote to her mother.
She always dreamed of spoiling her mother, but Patterson said it never seemed possible until the last few years.
Now, she’s giving her all the time and care she can.
“The house is never enough,” she said.
While Tyra Patterson celebrates her freedom and makes up for lost time, she said she can’t help but think of the woman who will never get that chance.
Many of Michelle Lai’s family and friends still believe Patterson is guilty and disagree with her release.
Patterson says she always has to acknowledge there are many victims in this story and Lai should never be forgotten.
“That alone is so unfair,” she said. “That she didn’t and wasn’t able to be home with her family for Christmas or they can’t hold their daughter for Christmas and that’s what they deserve.”
Patterson knows she can never give Lai’s family what they deserve but she believes after three years on parole, she’s proven she’s worth more to the world free than behind bars.
She said it does no one any good to keep her in prison for a crime she didn’t commit.