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EXCLUSIVE: Tyra Patterson talks about her murder conviction after being granted parole

Tyra Patterson talks about her murder conviction and her innocence (WKEF/WRGT)

CLEVELAND (WKEF/WRGT) - Tyra Patterson is on the record in a WKEF/WRGT exclusive, talking about her murder conviction.

Patterson was handed a life sentence for the 1994 murder of 15-year-old Michelle Lai, but said she's innocent and has been granted parole.

WKEF/WRGT's Kelly May went to Cleveland to talk with Patterson, who said she's never lost hope someone would come forward and stand by her innocence.

"I knew that this day would come for my freedom," Patterson told May during the interview, "I knew that it would come. I didn't think it would take 23 years, but it's okay."

Patterson starts off soft-spoken and smiling, but emotions bubble through when she talks about the night of the crime.

She's never talked on television, but she's been in the news since 1994, when she says a false confession and murder conviction would change the course of her life.

"They try to teach you how to not be an inmate," she said showing WKEF/WRGT around Cleveland's Northeast Reintegration Center where she is serving out the final month of her sentence.

"I came to prison not knowing how to read or write," she explained, but she got her GED once she was incarcerated.

"I have gotten my third STEAM class engineering license, I'm a paralegal, I have my ALT certificate, I'm a certified tutor," Tyra said about how she's bettered herself while locked up.

Back in 1994, Tyra Patterson was 19 years old and a 6th grade dropout.

She lived in some apartments off Smithville and Radio Roads in Dayton, nearby the scene where Lai was shot in the head sitting in a car with her sister Holli Lai and friends.

"I remember that night, although I was there prior to the shooting, I did not participate in the robbery, I did not participate in the murder," Patterson said.

There were at least four others there the night of the crime:

  • Lashawna Keeney, who reportedly pulled the trigger and is serving a life sentence at DCI for murder
  • Angela Thuman, who is serving a life sentence for aggravated murder and robbery
  • Joseph Letts, who served 13 years in prison before his murder conviction was overturned and he was released in 2008
  • Kellie Johnson, who was 14 at the time and was held in detention until she turned 21

Tyra said she remembered being outside smoking marijuana, when she says the group surrounded Lai's car.

She said she and a friend ran home, but on her way, she picked up the damning piece of evidence that would connect her to the scene; a necklace ripped off a victim in Michelle Lai's car.

"I remember picking up the necklace prior to the shooting, and while walking to my apartment me and my friend Rebecca heard a gunshot and we ran the rest of the way inside my apartment and as soon as we got inside we heard Holly Lai scream for help."

Tyra called 911 to report hearing gunshots.

Later that day, September 20, 1994, she would be interrogated by Dayton Police detectives.

"I wanted to tell them everything that I knew, I didn't know I was the suspect," Patterson explained.

Tyra said the detective told her, "It would be better to admit to robbery than murder."

So she confessed to taking the necklace in a taped interview.

"Why did you confess it?" May asked Patterson.

"I was scared," Patterson said, "I was like well where are you taking me? He said, you're getting booked for murder. And I said why? I didn't do anything. And I knew then that I was tricked. That I was in big trouble."

Tyra was tried and convicted of Aggravated Robbery and Aggravated Murder.

||RELATED: Friends of murder victim Michelle Lai speak out about Tyra Patterson's parole

22 years later, Michelle Lai's sister Holly, who was in the car at the time of the shooting, came forward with a revelation that would start the push to free Tyra.

In a 2016 letter she wrote to Governor John Kasich asking for clemency for Patterson, Holly Lai wrote, "When I heard about Tyra's confession, I assumed she must have been involved with the crimes."

"I no longer believe that Tyra participated in the robbery that led to Michelle's murder," the letter also said.

"Holly Lai is the hero," Patterson said.

After that, other suspects and former jurors came forward to support Tyra's freedom.

The Ohio Justice and Policy Center pushed for clemency, and for a parole hearing, which was granted in October.

"It was a relief... it was a relief," Patterson said holding back tears.

"Although it still seems surreal because I'm still doing my time so it won't feel real until I actually leave," she said looking to the window in the interview room.

After 23 years, Patterson will leave prison for good on or after December 24.

"If that is possible I just want to get on the couch with my mother," she said about the possibility of spending her first Christmas in 23 years at home.

"A lot has changed out there since you were a teenager in the 90's," May said to Patterson.

"It has," Patterson replied. "I know what you're gonna ask me about am I scared. Of course, of course I am. I know one of my biggest obstacles will be trying to catch up with the world. I know that's not possible."

But Patterson said it is possible to forgive.

She said she doesn't hold any resentment, toward people or the judicial system.

She wants to devote the rest of her life to changing legislative policy, and mentoring troubled youth.

"If there was something I could say to the victims, I am grateful that Holly Lai came forward, she was brave in doing so, and I am still sorry about what happened. If I could change one thing about that night it would be Michelle would still be here."

The Ohio Justice and Policy Center has been the driving force behind Patterson's freedom.

Patterson said she plans to work for them as a paralegal upon her release.

She also said, the first thing she wants to do when she leaves is eat seafood, and put on real pajamas.

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