In 1994, Tyra Patterson—then 19—was involved in the assault and robbery of a of a group of young women that left one of them—15-year-old Michelle Lai—dead from a gunshot wound to the head. It is known beyond doubt that Patterson did not pull the trigger, but her participation prior to Lai’s death remains unclear.

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Patterson is currently serving a life sentence for murder and robbery at the Dayton correctional institution in Dayton, Ohio. (In Ohio, participating in a robbery that leads to someone’s murder leaves you liable for the murder.) She’s been in prison for over two decades and throughout that time, she has maintained her innocence—not only of any involvement in Lai’s death, but of participating in the robbery itself. The key evidence that convicted her—a videotaped confession in which Patterson admits to pulling a necklace off one of the victims—was, according to her, coerced. She also maintains that her trial was unfair: Her assigned lawyers were not prepared, evidence was left out, and she was never called to testify in front of a jury because she spoke “too hood.”

Yesterday, The Guardian launched a series of investigatory articles on Patterson’s case. Now two parts in, much remains a murky “he said-she said,” but what’s emerged as crystal clear are the deep flaws within the U.S. criminal justice system, an entity that exists less to carry out justice and more to incarcerate as many people as possible. (Bonus points if the convict happens to be a poor, illiterate black girl from a bad neighborhood.)

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“For six months the Guardian has been exploring Patterson’s life story, tracking her journey from elementary school dropout in poverty-stricken Dayton, Ohio, to a life sentence in the city’s female prison,” writes the Guardian’s Ed Pilkington. “The story that emerges is one woman’s struggle to have her claim of innocence heard within a system resistant to listening anymore.”

The Guardian’s report begins on the night On September 20, 1994. Patterson was out late with a friend when they happened to run into some vague acquaintances. Among them was LaShawna Keeney.

Pilkington writes:

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One of the five, 21-year-old LaShawna Keeney, was “acting crazy,” Patterson would later say. Keeney had a black .22 caliber gun, which she proceeded to wave about​ in her green Chevrolet Caprice. Patterson recalled in a videotaped confession filmed by police later that day – which we’ll examine in chapter two ​– that the older girl was “talking big shit”, saying things like “I don’t give a fuck about nothin’”.

Sometime after 2am, as Patterson and Stidham were on their way home, the group came across a separate bunch of five young people: white girls from a different part of the city, including two sisters, Michelle and Holly Lai. They were sitting in another car, a grey Chevy Chevette, in a lot down the alleyway just a few hundred feet from the Pattersons’ place. This second group had been driving around the area “rogueing” – that is, looking for stuff to steal from garages.

The two groups’ encounter led to an altercation in which the Chevy Chevette was blocked in the ally and Keeney—along with her then-boyfriend Joe Letts and friends Kellie Johnson and Angie Thuman—robbed the girls and shot Michelle Lai in the head.

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To this day, Tyra Patterson maintains that she did not participate in the violence and only tried to help deescalate the situation. When that failed, she left the scene of the crime and committed what she says is the biggest mistake of her life. She picked up a necklace that had fallen to the ground (the necklace belonged to one of the victims). She then ran home and called 911.

It was that necklace—along with differing accounts from the girls within the car and a confession that Patterson says was forced—that would lead to her conviction of aggravated murder. Her 911 call was never played for the jury.

Now 40, Patterson continues to fight for her release from prison:

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“It’s been hard knowing that for the past 19 years I’ve been labeled as a murderer or a robber, even though I tried to help and that was ignored,” she said. “It’s been sad because for every day, for the rest of my life and since then, I will always remember Holly Lai screaming out to me. I wish I could have done more, but I did what I could.”

Then Patterson said: “That night I was trying to help, I wasn’t trying to hurt anyone. I hurt myself.”

LaShawna Keeney and Kellie Johnson both state that Patterson’s version of events—that she tried to stop the violence and left when she couldn’t—is correct. One victim states that Patterson punched her in the face and took her necklace. Another victim in the car said Patterson was not involved. Prosecutors maintain that Patterson is guilty.

Patterson—in a major miscarriage of justice—was sentenced to more time than any of the people who pled guilty to being involved in the crime. Keeney confessed to shooting Lai and was given 30 years to life. Patterson said she was innocent and was given 43 to life. (The 43 was later reduced to 16. Letts was also given 43 to life, but had the charges cleared in 2007.) Thuman, the lone white defendant, was given 26 to life.

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Patterson’s exaggerated sentencing is, according to the Guardian, “known in the criminal justice system as a ‘trial tax’ or ‘trial penalty.’”

David Singleton, a lawyer for the woman on the other end of a bad deal, puts this all-too-common prisoner’s dilemma down to one uniquely American problem: “Tyra Patterson was punished for asserting her innocence.”

Also:

In 1980, nearly 20% of all criminal convictions in US district courts were decided through jury or bench trial. These courts handle federal cases, including violent crimes, drugs, immigration and other offenses.

By 2014, that number fell to just 2.4%. The other 97.6% of convictions were reached through a guilty plea.

In other words, Patterson was punished for requiring the court to do exactly what they are in place for. The trial didn’t serve her and, in many ways, hurt her more. Her lawyers were unable to do their jobs and when she asked for new ones, the request was denied. “You have two very good lawyers,” said Judge Barbara Gorman. “There’s no reason why they cannot represent you in this case.”

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Those two lawyers—Carl Goraleski and Glen Dewar—both now admit that the system failed Patterson. “I didn’t even know until recently that she couldn’t read,” Goraleski told the Guardian. “That was never communicated to me.”

As for Dewar:

Throughout his dealings with Patterson over those 13 months, Dewar said, she consistently and without deviation told him she was innocent. But he didn’t know enough then about the possibility of coercion: “I resisted the thought that she could have made a false confession, because it was beyond what I knew and I had no idea how to deal with it.”

The Guardian will release Part III of the Tyra Patterson series in the near future. In the meantime, please read Part I and II of this true life story that is nothing short of tragic and shameful.


Contact the author at madeleine@jezebel.com.

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Image via Shutterstock.