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 for the crime.
“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 changed her mind later 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’re more important is that I tell the truth about how I feel.”
Public support for Patterson has grown in recent years. Others who have publicly called for her release (including through an online video titled "I Am Tyra Patterson") include:
- Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns
- Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters
- Former Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro
- Actress Alfre Woodard
- Former U.S. congresswoman Jean Schmidt
- Civil rights activist Michelle Alexander
- Mad Men TV show creator Matthew Weiner
- Actor Colman Domingo
- Ohio Sen. Peggy Lehner, R-Kettering
- Ohio Sen. Shannon Jones, R-Springboro
- Several of the jurors who voted to convict Patterson
But opposition to releasing Patterson exists. In a clemency hearing last year, Assistant Montgomery County Prosecuting Attorney Leon Daidone argued that Patterson was convicted after a fair trial. He said none of the politicians calling for her release had spoken to the victim’s family.
The victim’s father told the Dayton Daily News when Patterson filed for clemency in 2013 that it should be denied.
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“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 that threatened to charge her with murder if she didn’t confess to the robbery.
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Several of the jurors from the case said they would not have voted to convict Patterson if they knew she had been the one to call 911 after the shooting. One of the jurors, Nancy Day, has gathered 236,000 signatures for an online petition urging Kasich to grant clemency.
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. But other witnesses, including the woman who was wearing the necklace, said Patterson physically attacked them and egged on the shooter.
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.”
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