BY DIANE DIMOND
The prosecutor could be more interested in winning than finding the truth. The defense attorney might be inexperienced and botch things. Maybe the judge makes rulings that keep crucial evidence from the jury.
Was the trial of 19-year-old Tyra Patterson of Dayton, Ohio, one of those flawed cases? Six of the jurors who sat in judgment of Tyra now say that if they knew back then what they know now, they likely would not have found her guilty of aggravated robbery and murder.
But you decide.
On a September evening in 1994, Tyra and her good friend Becca Stidham were in her apartment smoking marijuana with two young men they had recently met. They climbed into a car owned by one of the young men to run an errand. Along the way, the young man spotted his girlfriend walking her dog and stopped to talk. Two other women also approached the car, and one of them — identified as LaShawna Keeney — had a gun. According to Tyra, Keeney “was acting crazy.” Tyra and Becca say they had not met the three females before that night.
There was a lot of conversation and milling about, and suddenly it was clear that the three women were menacing five occupants of a nearby parked car. They were verbally harassing five young women sitting in a Chevette, punching them through the windows and stealing things from them. Some items dropped to the ground.
Tyra and Becca realized they needed to get out of the area. As they scooted away, Tyra bent down and impulsively scooped up one victim’s necklace. When they heard a single gunshot behind them, Tyra and Becca broke into a run home.
They did not realize that 15-year-old Michelle Lai had just been murdered.
At trial, the prosecution made it sound as if Tyra was in cahoots with the three women at the scene that night and referred to the perpetrators as “The Patterson Group.” Tyra Patterson’s public defenders never corrected that misconception.
Becca would have offered testimony supporting Tyra’s innocence, but for unknown reasons, the defense never called her as a witness.
The jury never heard about the sworn statement from the shooter, LaShawna Keeney, who said, “Tyra actually tried to stop the robbery. She walked up to me and told me to leave the victims alone.” The woman with the dog also said in an affidavit that, “I remember Tyra trying to stop the robbery by telling LaShawna to leave the victims alone.”
The jury never heard a word about it.
Most unbelievably, Tyra’s team never had the jury listen to the 911 tape of Tyra calling police almost immediately after she reached her apartment.
“I heard a gunshot,” Tyra tells the operator. “Please hurry up and come.”
Attorney David Singleton, the Director of the Ohio Justice and Policy Center, has taken up Tyra’s cause pro bono. He wrote to the Ohio Clemency Board about the 911 call: “(It) was powerful evidence that the state’s theory was wrong — that Tyra Patterson was not acting in concert with the criminals, but instead tried to get police help for the victims.”
It should not go unmentioned that Tyra Patterson endured a hellish, poverty-ridden childhood in a single-parent household and no one — not even state officials — noticed when she stopped going to school in the sixth grade. She was forced to quit the one job she ever had — at a Wendy’s — because she had never learned to make change.
Yet Tyra knew the day after the shooting that she must go to police and tell them what she saw. At one point, after Tyra mentioned the necklace to police, she says officers began to scream at her and threaten her with prison. They demanded she admit to robbery or go away for life on a murder rap.
Following hours of interrogation, Tyra says she falsely confessed that she had ripped the necklace from the victim. “I just wanted to go home,” she explained later.
The jury saw that videotaped confession, but Tyra’s lawyer never offered testimony about how easily under-educated youngsters can be tricked into making false statements. It frequently happens.
Now, nearly two decades after Tyra was sentenced to 43-years-to-life (more time than the shooter, LaShawna Keeney), the jurors finally got a more complete picture of what happened from Tyra’s new lawyers. Six of the 12 jurors have added their voices to Tyra’s clemency petition.
“I voted not guilty initially because my gut told me that Tyra did not rob anyone. … I changed my vote because other jurors kept bringing up the videotaped statement where Tyra admitted to a robbery,” wrote one juror. Another said, “The defense did not provide us any reason to believe that Tyra’s confession was coerced.”
About the 911 call, jurors said, “She would’ve never called 911 if she thought she’d done something wrong. … If I had heard the 911 call at trial, it almost certainly would’ve given me a reason to follow my instincts and vote not guilty.” And this from another juror, “If I had heard that 911 call at trial, I would not have voted to convict.”
Juror Nancy Day started an online petition, calling on Ohio’s governor to release Tyra immediately. Day has visited Tyra, who is now 38, and says, “I am disturbed that Tyra has been incarcerated for 19 years. We convicted her without a full picture of all the facts. I would have liked to know what I do now back when her future was at stake.”
By all accounts, Tyra has made much of her time in prison. She earned her GED, participated in more than 200 self-help groups, earned her boiler engineering license and has learned to love the books she never got to read in school. She says she looks forward to becoming a paralegal on the outside, and giving speeches to youngsters, encouraging them to stay in school and live drug-free lives.
So, did the justice system work well in Tyra Patterson’s case? I think it’s clear it did not. Is 19 years in prison for stealing a necklace off a sidewalk a fair sentence? Of course not.
Gov. John Kasich of Ohio: Release Tyra Patterson today.
Rockland resident Diane Dimond is a syndicated columnist, author, regular guest on TV news programs, and correspondent for Newsweek/Daily Beast. Visit her at www.DianeDimond.net or reach her via email Diane@DianeDimond.net