After spending more than two decades behind bars, Tyra Patterson ran down a snow-covered neighborhood street in Kettering to hug her sister-in-law on Christmas Day.
Patterson, a Dayton woman who garnered international support for her claims of innocence, walked out of state prison this morning as a free woman.
Patterson was convicted and sentenced to a life prison sentence for the murder and robbery of 15-year-old Michelle Lai on Sept. 20, 1994. She entered state prison in December 1995, and the Ohio Parole Board voted in October to grant release for Patterson, now 42. She was being held at the Northeast Pre-Release Center in Cleveland.
Patterson drove with Attorney David Singleton of the Ohio Justice and Policy Center from Cleveland to Kettering, where her family anxiously awaited her arrival for their first Christmas together in so many years.
She wore a black Columbia jacket, ripped jeans and tall, buttoned boots. Her sleek, long hair laid perfectly around her face as she cried and hugged her mother outside.
“I am so in love with you, mama,” she said.
Inside the Kettering home, Patterson sat with family members and friends with a fire crackling in the fireplace and Hallmark Christmas movies playing in the background.
Patterson was one of five people charged in the slaying of Lai and the robbery of her sister and three other girls.
A lot of what actually happened that night is still unknown. Lai, and a group of other girls including her sister Holly, were out "roguing," or stealing from garages, according to court records. Lai and a group of girls were sitting in a Chevy Chevette in an alley near Smithville Road when they made contact with Lai's killer, according to an investigation by the Dayton Daily News.
Patterson was with a group of girls including LaShawna Keeney, when they got into a verbal altercation with Lai and her friends. The altercation escalated and ended when Keeney apparently shot Lai in the head.
Patterson did not fire the shot that killed Lai but under Ohio law accomplices to murder can get the same punishment as killers. Patterson has maintained that Dayton police coerced her into confessing on camera to a robbery she didn’t commit, which opened her up to the aggravated murder conviction
She was denied parole in March 2011 but by July 2017, the parole board indicated its willingness to release her, noting her motivation and considerable community support. Celebrity support for Patterson has included documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, actress Alfre Woodard and “Mad Men” TV show creator Matthew Weiner.
Patterson reflected on her release, and thanked Lai’s sister, who vouched for her innocence.
“I am not the victim,” Patterson said. “Holly Lai is a hero, and she has been an advocate for me.”
Holly (Lai) Holbrook, the sister of Lai, wrote a letter to Kasich in 2016 explaining that Patterson wasn’t involved in the robbery and shooting of her sister, Michelle Lai, on Sept. 20, 1994.
“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.”
Singleton said Patterson’s release on Christmas Day was “emotionally draining,” and he was thrilled to see her reunite with her family for the holiday.
“It has been the highlight of my legal career,” he said.
Politicians also called for her release, including Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters; five state senators including Bill Beagle, Shannon Jones and Peggy Lehner; and former U.S. congresswoman Jean Schmidt.
Patterson, who dropped out of school in the sixth grade, has a job awaiting her at the Cincinnati-based Ohio Justice Policy Center and will live in an apartment in Cincinnati.
“It’s not over. We’re going to do great things,” she said. “There are a lot of people in prison who are innocent.”
“It’s something I have a passion for, policy and procedures within in the judicial system,” she continued.
Patterson hugged her mom before standing up, exhaling and grinning again.
“Let’s eat and open gifts!” she said.
Columbus bureau reporter Laura Bischoff contributed to this report.