Late one night in September 1994, in Dayton, Ohio, 19-year-old Tyra Patterson found herself at wrong place at the wrong time, with the wrong group of teenagers. Months later, Patterson was convicted of aggravated murder and robbery and sentenced to life in prison; though she was recently granted parole after 23 years, she's still determined to clear her name.
That night, Patterson and her friend, Becca Stidham, were hanging around a group of five acquaintances, who got into an altercation with another group of teens, including two sisters, Michelle and Holly Lai. The Lai sisters and their friends had allegedly been out "roguing," or driving around looking for open garages to rob. Words were exchanged between the two groups, and Michelle Lai was fatally shot in the head.
Even though prosecutors ultimately learned that Patterson's codefendant shot Lai, Patterson was charged with aggravated murder for her participation, after confessing to stealing a necklace. Patterson claimed that her recorded confession to police was false and coerced. A detective, she said, threatened her and implied that Stidham had been released because she had provided them with information. So, Patterson made up a story.
"I saw the girl in the back with a necklace on," Patterson told police. "I took the necklace. I didn't hit her or nothing, I just grabbed it."
Patterson later said she didn't rob anyone – she found the necklace on the ground and later flushed it – and was not even present for the shooting. After trying to deescalate the situation, Patterson and Stidham headed home and heard a gunshot on the way. Patterson called 911 as soon as she got home, using a fake name. The jury never knew about, let alone heard the 911 call, and the defense did not call Patterson or her friend Stidham to testify. Prosecutors focused on Patterson's robbery confession, but the surviving victims contradicted each other when identifying which of the defendants was responsible for the various offenses – including snatching Candice Brogan's necklace from around her neck.
Nevertheless, Patterson was convicted and sentenced to 43 years to life, incurring what's referred to as a "trial tax" – a penalty for having the audacity to claim innocence and forcing a case to trial. Stidham and three of Patterson's codefendants have since sworn under oath that she was not involved in either the robbery or the murder. Six of the 12 members of the jury have provided affidavits saying that if they had known about the 911 call they would have found her not guilty. And Holly Lai, who initially told police that Patterson wasn't involved, now says that detectives pressured her to change her story with force-fed details.
"I no longer believe that Tyra participated in the robbery that led to Michelle's murder," Lai wrote in a letter to Ohio governor John Kasich. "I believe it is wrong for Tyra to stay locked up."