In the early morning of Sept. 20, 1994, a dozen young people — a conglomeration of friends, lovers, acquaintances and strangers — converged in an alley near a Dayton apartment building. Within minutes, verbal harassment escalated into robbery, fighting and, finally, a shooting that ended the life of 15-year-old Michelle Lai.
Tyra Patterson, then 19, wasn’t the shooter in the highly publicized crime, but she is serving a life sentence at Dayton Correctional Institution. Now she is seeking clemency from Gov. John Kasich, saying she was pressured by Dayton police during a mostly unrecorded interrogation into confessing on camera to a robbery she didn’t commit, opening herself up to the aggravated murder conviction that resulted in her life sentence. Under Ohio law, accomplices to murder can get the same punishment as killers.
It’s not uncommon for convicts to claim innocence, but Patterson’s lengthy clemency petition includes some potentially persuasive evidence:
- Holly Lai, the victim’s sister, testified at the juvenile court trial of co-defendant Kellie Johnson that it was Johnson who snatched a necklace from one of the five robbery victims in Holly Lai’s car. Nearly a year later at Patterson’s trial in adult court, Holly Lai testified it was Patterson who grabbed the necklace. Holly Lai declined to be interviewed for this article.
- It was Patterson who called 911 for help after the shooting, giving a false name at first, while the other defendants fled. The 911 call wasn’t mentioned at Patterson’s trial.
- Six of Patterson’s former jurors swore out affidavits this summer stating that, had they known about the 911 call and Holly Lai’s conflicting testimony, they either would not or may not have voted to convict her.
- Patterson passed a lie detector test last year in which she denied “physically” stealing the necklace that resulted in her robbery conviction, though she admits picking it up off the ground. The polygraph examiner said she showed no deception when she said she was not present when Michelle Lai was shot.
- Five other witnesses passed polygraphs bolstering Patterson’s account, and said in affidavits that she tried to stop the shooter, LaShawna Keeney, from robbing the victims. One of the polygraph examiners said “the possibility that all six results were incorrect or ‘false negatives’ is slim to none.”
“I’ve met Tyra, I’ve talked to Tyra, and I truly believe she is innocent and was at the wrong place at the wrong time,” former juror Nan Day of Huber Heights told the Dayton Daily News. “And we as the jury didn’t have all the information we needed to make an informed decision.”
Lai’s father, Frank Lai, opposes Patterson’s bid for clemency.
“If this governor grants clemency of any of these people, it’s sending the wrong message,” he 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.”
The clemency bid was filed this summer by Patterson’s new attorney, David Singleton, executive director of the nonprofit Ohio Justice & Policy Center, a Cincinnati-based prison reform group. He said it contains new evidence including the polygraphs and witness affidavits, the 911 call and the conflicting testimony that weren’t raised in previous appeals and clemency requests.
Singleton said it’s a rare and risky move to argue innocence before the parole board. “When you go before the parole board they’re looking for acceptance of responsibility,” he said. ”We’re scared they’re going to take it out on her because she’s not owning responsibility.”
Leon Daidone, who heads the criminal division of the Montgomery County Prosecutor’s Office, said he will study the clemency petition closely before filing a response with the parole board. He said it could be a year before there’s a hearing on the application.
“This was a very, very important case,” he said. “(The application) is very voluminous and I’m going to go through it piece by piece. This tries to portray Tyra Patterson as the victim in this case and she’s anything but the victim. She confessed to an experienced detective.”
A false confession?
The jurors who now support clemency for Patterson say her brief videotaped confession to reaching into the victims’ car and snatching a necklace off the neck of passenger Candy Brogan was the most damning evidence at her trial. But Patterson contends she was pushed into confessing after hours of interrogation by Dayton police Detective Tom Lawson who, she says, told her it “would be better to admit to ripping the necklace from one of the victims, which was robbery, rather than going down for murder.”
She said she didn’t know then that admitting to a role in the robbery opened her up to an aggravated murder charge, and she only gave the statement in the naive hope that police would let her go home.
Lawson, now retired, denied Patterson’s account of his interrogation. “Certainly, people in an attempt to reduce the severity of their sentences come up with all kind of stories. They have a lot of time to sit around and think about it. At no time did I coerce her or browbeat her or curse at her.”
But Steven Drizin, an attorney with the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University in Chicago, said Patterson’s account of the interrogation “rings true” with cases of false confessions he has studied. Especially in cases involving young defendants, he said, false confessions can occur when police threaten severe punishments, then suggest that making admissions may be a way out.
“I think it’s a combination of fear, inexperience with the law and interrogation tactics that broke (Patterson) down and made her think it was in her best interest to admit to robbing the victims.”
According to the Innocence Project’s website, “in about 25 percent of DNA exoneration cases, innocent defendants made incriminating statements, delivered outright confessions or pled guilty.
“Confessions obtained from juveniles are often unreliable. Children can be easy to manipulate and are not always fully aware of their situation. Children and adults are often convinced that they can ‘go home’ as soon as they admit guilt.”
Drizin, who assisted with Patterson’s clemency bid, said her case illustrates the need for laws requiring police to videotape entire interrogations, not just incriminating statements made after lengthy questioning. Seventeen states have laws concerning the recording of police interrogations, but Drizin said Ohio’s law is “toothless and may do more harm than good.”
“I think Ohio’s statute is the least effective of any of the statutes that have been passed because it doesn’t provide any incentive for police officers to record, or sanctions if they don’t record,” he said.
“What’s unfortunate in this case is all we’re left with is the sausage and not the sausage-making,” Drizin said. “They could have turned on the camera much earlier and we wouldn’t be here debating what happened.”
A teen is murdered
Much of what happened is known. On the night of her murder, Michelle Lai was among a group of girls who were out “roguing,” stealing from garages, according to court records. Michelle, Holly, their cousin Danielle Jones and sisters Candy and Amy Brogan were sitting in Holly Lai’s Chevrolet Chevette in an alley near Smithville Road when they encountered Michelle’s killer. Coincidentally, Michelle Lai was being profiled in a series of articles about troubled youth called “Kids in Chaos” published in the Dayton Daily News the week of her death.
Patterson said she was living aimlessly in those days. A sixth-grade dropout and daughter of an alcoholic father, she quit her only real job, at a fast food place, because she was ashamed to admit she couldn’t make change for customers, according to her clemency application.
Interviewed in prison, Patterson said she and her friend Rebecca Stidham had met Joseph Letts and Aaron Moten only days earlier, and the four had smoked marijuana together. She said she met Keeney, Johnson and another co-defendant, Angela Jo Thuman, only hours before the murder. Letts and Moten were the boyfriends of Keeney and Johnson, respectively, and the girls were jealous that they were spending time with Patterson and Stidham, according to affidavits of Letts and Moten in support of Patterson’s clemency bid. Patterson said Keeney tried to intimidate her that day by showing her the gun later used to kill Lai.
In the minutes before the shooting, Moten, Stidham and Patterson arrived at the scene near Patterson’s apartment in Moten’s car, while Letts, Johnson and Keeney arrived on foot, according to Letts’ affidavit. Moten stopped his car near Holly Lai’s Chevette, preventing the victims from leaving.
Witnesses said Keeney apparently shot Michelle Lai after one of the victims in the car hit Johnson in self-defense.
“Tyra and Becca retreated back as soon as they got out of the car,” according to Letts. “They were standing about 15 feet away from the Chevette the whole time. LaShawna, Kellie and Angie started saying threatening things to the girls in the Chevette and antagonizing them. A split second later, LaShawna, Kellie and Angie started fighting and punching the girls in the car. Tyra and Becca started walking away. Not too long after that, I heard the gun go off after hearing Kellie say, ‘She hit me, she hit me,’ and LaShawna say, ‘You hit my friend!’ At no point did I see Tyra touch the Chevette or take anything out of the car. I never saw her act aggressively toward the girls.”
Johnson also swore out an affidavit, saying she lied to police when she implicated Patterson in the robbery: “I lied about Tyra because I wanted to shift responsibility and blame away from myself.”
Stidham’s affidavit said Patterson told Keeney to leave the girls alone.
“When Tyra tried to intervene, LaShawna got mad,” Stidham said. “At that point, Tyra and I started to leave. I saw her bend down and pick something up. I saw later it was a necklace. Tyra and I heard a gunshot as we were walking away from the Chevette. (W)e ran the rest of the way back to Tyra’s apartment. (S)he called 9111 … but she was scared when she called, so she gave a wrong name.” On the 911 tape, Patterson tells the dispatcher her name is “Tiara.”
After the shooting, Letts, Moten, Keeney, Johnson and Thuman left the scene together, Moten’s affidavit said.
Patterson said she intervened with Keeney when Holly Lai looked at her and said, “Please make them stop. We don’t have anything (to steal).” She said she and Stidham ran home because she thought Keeney was shooting at them, but then, “I heard Holly Lai screaming, ‘Please help me. My sister’s been shot.’ I immediately called 911.”
“For the rest of my life, I will always remember Holly Lai screaming out,” Patterson said. “I wish I could have done more, but I did what I could.”
She flushed the necklace down her toilet because she knew it could implicate her in the robbery, she said.
The police interrogation
During her interrogation, Patterson said, she told Lawson what happened but initially left out any mention of the necklace.
“His words were, ‘You’re a liar. I have witnesses. You’re going down for murder.’ I started crying hysterically. I told him I didn’t do anything. He kept telling me I murdered a young girl. He said it would be better to go down for robbery than murder any day.”
Patterson said as she was being booked into the jail, she saw Stidham leaving after being questioned. Lawson told her Stidham was allowed to leave because she gave a videotaped statement, she said. That’s when she gave the video statement and confessed to snatching the necklace, she said. She said she thought she’d be allowed to leave, but was instead booked for aggravated murder.
At her trial, Patterson’s public defenders didn’t introduce the 911 call because they felt it was incriminating that she gave a false name, she said, and they advised her against testifying, saying her lack of education would allow prosecutors to “eat me alive” on cross-examination.
Carl Goraleski, one of Patterson’s attorneys, said in an affidavit that at the time of her trial “we did not have the means, resources or expertise to help the jury understand that Tyra’s confession was false. Our inability to devise a strategy to attack the confession crippled the defense to Tyra’s detriment.”
Day said she and her fellow jurors didn’t believe Patterson was responsible for the murder, but felt they had no choice but to convict her because of the unrefuted confession. She said when Singleton told her of the 911 call and Holly Lai’s conflicting testimony this year, “I was just infuriated.”
Montgomery County Common Pleas Judge Barbara P. Gorman sentenced Patterson to 43 years to life, longer than the sentence of shooter Keeney, who pleaded guilty and didn’t go to trial.
On his last day in office in January 2011, Gov. Ted Strickland reduced Patterson’s sentence to 16 years to life, making her eligible for parole since she had already served 17 years. But the parole board declined to release her, setting her next hearing for February 2018.
Keeney is serving 33 years to life, her first parole hearing set for January 2018. Thuman, serving 28 years to life, has her next hearing in March 2018. Letts’s aggravated murder conviction was overturned on appeal and he was released in 2007 after serving his robbery sentence. Johnson was held in juvenile detention until she was 21. Stidham and Moten weren’t charged.
If she is released, Patterson said she’d like to speak to youth about the importance of education and being drug-free. She got her high school equivalency certificate in 1996. She wants to be a paralegal.
“I don’t label myself a victim,” Patterson said. “The ultimate victim here is Michelle Lai. I feel really, really sad because Michelle didn’t get to live her life and realize her dreams, and I’m able to sit here and talk to you today. I will live with this for the rest of my life.”
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