A woman who saw her sister shot to death in 1994 has joined a growing chorus of celebrities, politicians and online petitioners calling for Ohio Gov. John Kasich to consider clemency for a woman convicted in relation to the Dayton murder.
Holly Holbrook wrote in an April letter to Kasich that Tyra Patterson wasn’t involved in the robbery and shooting of her sister, Michelle Lai, on Sept. 20, 1994. Patterson has served 22 years in prison.
“I no longer believe that Tyra participated in the robbery that led to Michelle’s murder,” Holbrook’s letter reads. “I believe it is wrong for Tyra to stay locked up.”
Holbrook wrote that the night of the murder she told police Patterson wasn’t involved, but later changed her mind after Patterson confessed — a confession Patterson claims was coerced.
“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,” Holbrook wrote to the governor. “But I’ve decided that what’s more important is that I tell the truth about how I feel.”
Public support for Patterson has grown in recent years. Celebrities including documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, actress Alfre Woodard and “Mad Men” TV show creator Matthew Weiner have participated in web videos stating “I am Tyra Patterson.”
A number of Ohio politicians have advocated her release, including former Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro, Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters; five state senators including Bill Beagle, Shannon Jones and Peggy Lehner; and former U.S. congresswoman Jean Schmidt.
Several of the jurors that sent her to prison have since pushed for her release, saying they didn’t get all the information they needed at trial, including the fact that Patterson called 911 to report the shooting. One juror has started an online petition for her release that has received more than 236,000 signatures.
When asked about the Holbrook letter and whether Kasich is considering clemency, governor’s office spokeswoman Emmalee Kalmbach responded with a statement saying, “The application for executive clemency has been received and is still pending.”
Leon Daidone, chief of the criminal division at the Montgomery County Prosecutor’s Office, said he just learned of Holbrook’s letter.
“While her letter is emotional, it is in direct contradiction to her own testimony as well as the testimony of other eyewitnesses, given under oath and subject to cross-examination, more than two decades ago,” he said.
“It should be noted that the Ohio Parole Board has twice recommended to the governor that Ms. Patterson should not be granted clemency based on her claim of innocence.”
The Ohio Parole Board heard testimony from Daidone, Lehner and others last year and voted 8-2 to recommend Kasich deny Patterson clemency.
At the hearing, other witnesses to the shooting — including the woman who was wearing the necklace — maintained that Patterson physically attacked them and egged on the shooter.
The victim’s father told the Dayton Daily News when Patterson filed for clemency in 2013 that it should be denied.
“If this governor grants clemency of any of these people, it’s sending the wrong message,” Frank Lai said. “These criminals are going to say what they need to say to get out of prison. (Patterson) made a decision 19 years ago and she was part of the decision that took my daughter’s life.”
While Patterson didn’t pull the trigger, she confessed to stealing a necklace from a passenger in the car with Lei during the melee that led up to the shooting. She was convicted of aggravated murder and initially sentenced to 43 years in prison — longer than the shooter — but departing Gov. Ted Strickland commuted her sentence on his last day in office in 2011, making her eligible for parole.
Patterson later said that she picked up the necklace from the ground after someone else ripped it off during the fight, and ran off with it after the shooting started. She said her videotaped confession followed hours of non-videotaped interrogation, and that police threatened to charge her with murder if she didn’t confess to the robbery.
Some of the people involved in the 1994 incident agree with Patterson, saying she was standing 15 feet away and even tried to stop the fight.
David Singleton, executive director of the Ohio Justice & Policy Center, believes mounting evidence proves that Patterson was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
He says Patterson fell prey to a criminal justice system that pressures people to confess to crimes they didn’t commit. Then when she refused to take a plea and instead tried to prove her innocence at trial — which Singleton said ultimately failed due to inadequate defense attorneys — she faced a harsher penalty than others, he said.
“To us, it’s very clear that this is a case of wrongful conviction,” he said. “She is actually innocent, and she needs to come home.”
Patterson was housed at Dayton Correctional Institution until she was recently moved to a pre-release center in Cleveland. She has a parole hearing scheduled for February 2018, but Singleton hopes Kasich will act before that.
“I do believe the governor is taking it seriously, and I believe he has the heart and has the courage to do something not a lot of governors would do,” he said.
Patterson’s unlikely allies include Deters, considered one of the state’s toughest county prosecutors.
“I have fought the parole of thousands of inmates since I’ve been prosecuting attorney, and quite frankly this is the first time I’ve ever done anything for the release of someone,” Deters said in a statement earlier this year, saying Patterson has been in prison long enough.
Opponents of clemency, including Daidone, have been critical of celebrities and politicians getting involved in the case.
“Our role is to advocate, we are advocates for policies and we are advocates when necessary for people,” said Sen. Beagle, R-Tipp City, noting that Patterson was his constitutent when she was housed at DCI.
Sen. Lehner, R-Kettering, said she met Patterson several years ago and was impressed by how she went from a sixth-grade dropout before prison to getting her GED and some job training.
“She’s a very special person, and certainly not someone that the state of Ohio should be spending money keeping in prison,” she said. “I wish (Kasich) could meet Tyra because she is such an incredible woman.”
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