The prisons are filled with people convicted of murder who never killed anyone.
Laura Nirider and Steve Drizin take us to Dayton, Ohio where a young woman’s false confession to robbery gets turned into a false conviction for murder. There are two profound lies at work in the legal system here.
Wrongful Conviction: False Confessions is a production of Lava for Good™ Podcasts in association with Signal Co No1
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Laura Nirider Welcome to Wrongful Conviction: F alse Confessions. I'm Laura Nirider.
Steve Drizin And I'm Steve Drizin.
Laura Nirider In today's episode, we'll take you to Dayton, Ohio, to tell you about Tyra Patterson. Nineteen-year-old Tyra falsely confessed to stealing a necklace, but an obscure law turned her false confession to robbery into something far worse.
Steve Drizin I was sitting in my office one day and the phone rang. And on the other end of the call was David Singleton, the director of a group called the Ohio Justice and Policy Center. David was looking for somebody who could assist him in a case that involved a false confession. I t was Tyra Patterson's case. We've told a lot of stories about people who falsely confessed to murders last season. But the crazy thing is this is a case where a false confession to robbery is converted into a false conviction for murder. And it's all because of an obscure, archaic rule called the felony murder doctrine. Felony murder leads to people going down for murders who never killed anyone.
Laura Nirider When most people think about people in prison who have been convicted of murder, they think of truly bad people, you know, scary folks. But there are a lot of people in prison for murder who never touched a gun or a murder weapon at all.
Steve Drizin The prisons are filled with people convicted of felony murder: people like Tyra Patterson.
Laura Nirider Today's story starts in Dayton, Ohio. It was a manufacturing town back in the day, but those jobs left in the 80s and 90s and never came back. Now, Dayton's claim to fame is that the guys who invented the airplane used to live there, Wilbur and Orville Wright. In fact, our story starts in a part of town named after the Wright Brothers, a lower-income, mixed-race neighborhood called Wright View. It was just after midnight on a Tuesday in Wright View, September 20, 1994. Tyra Patterson was awake and bored. Tyra was 19 and smart as hell with a sunny personality. She was full of promise, but there weren't many open doors in front of her. Tyra's home life was really tough. Her dad was an alcoholic who hit her mom when he'd been drinking. He left when Tyra was just a kid, and they got evicted when her mom couldn't pay the bills. Tyra dropped out of school in sixth grade; she was tired of the other kids bullying her about being poor. She got a job at a fast food restaurant, and they put her at the register because she was so friendly. But Tyra hadn't learned enough math to make change. She was humiliated every time someone handed her a 20, and quit the job. By the time Tyra reached her late teens, the family had found an apartment to live in again; but Tyra had lost her way. She smoked a lot of weed and tried not to think about how her life could've been different. It was around 2:00 a.m. on September 20 when Tyra's boring night started getting a little too interesting. Tyra and her friend Rebecca were hanging out at Tyra's place, and they decided to go for a walk. Outside, they ran into five other young people from Wright View. Tyra barely knew most of them, but she and Rebecca stuck around anyway. The group was mixed gender and mixed race: Five were black, including Tyra; and two were white, including Rebecca. To keep things clear in our story, we're gonna call all of them the Wright View group. Sometime after 2:00 a.m., a gray Chevrolet rolled into an alley near where the group was hanging out. The Chevy was filled with five teenagers, all white girls, from another part of town. They'd driven to Wright View to steal stuff from people's garages. In the alley, two of these would-be thieves got out of the Chevy to steal a radio. They were gone about 10 minutes before they returned to the car in a hurry. Following them on foot were three members of the Wright View group: LaShawna, Angie, and Joe. And on a leash, Joe had a pit bull. Before the girls in the Chevy can drive away, another car pulls up in front of them, blocking the alley's exit. It's the other four members of the Wright View group. And crammed into a corner of that car, wondering what she's gotten herself into, is Tyra Patterson. Tyra's friend Rebecca gets out of the car and heads for the Chevy, along with the other Wright View people. Not knowing what else to do, Tyra gets out too; but she's not prepared for what happens next. There's a confrontation. Everyone starts yelling. One of the Wright View girls, not Tyra, calls the girls in the Chevy "white bitches." Two other Wright View girls join in, still not Tyra, and start telling the girls in the Chevy to "check it in." That means throw your money and jewelry on the ground. The girls in the Chevy don't immediately comply, and that's when things really escalate. Tyra hangs back, but three of the Wright View girls open the car doors and start landing punches. Joe lets his pitbull into the car and orders it to attack. Now it's a melee. Some of the girls in the Chevy do check it in, throwing their jewelry onto the ground. Tyra's not used to this kind of stuff. She doesn't have a record, and she has no interest in violence. She tries to calm the situation down, but no one listens. As the punches intensify, Tyra and her friend Rebecca start slipping away. They want no part of this. But as they leave, Tyra spots a necklace on the ground: costume jewelry, a cheap gold cross. She's never owned that kind of jewelry, and it seems valuable to her. Tyra picks up the necklace, puts it in her pocket, and keeps walking away.
Steve Drizin When Tyra picked up that necklace, at worst, it was a theft. It might not even have been a crime. Picking up a necklace off the ground is not something that prosecutors are interested in. It's not something that people go to prison for. And it's certainly not murder.
Laura Nirider Right as Tyra's walking away, she hears words being yelled; yelled, maybe to her, by one of the girls in the Chevy, 18-year-old Holly Lai. "Please make them stop," Holly calls. "We don't have anything." Before Tyra can respond, a gunshot rings out. LaShawna Keeney, part of the Wright View group, had pulled out a gun and fired into the car. The bullet went straight into the temple of Michelle Lai, Holly's 15-year-old sister. Michelle died instantly. Later on, another one of the Wright View girls, Angie, expressed bewilderment that it all happened so fast. "We just meant to punk them out," she said. Within minutes, though, punking out turned into murder. The moment the shots rang out, everyone scattered. Most members of the Wright View group fled to a nearby motel. But Tyra ran to her apartment only a few hundred feet away, where she panicked and flushed the necklace down the toilet. She was afraid it would connect her to a shooting she didn't commit. For her part, Holly Lai got out of the Chevy and started banging on doors, pleading desperately for someone, anyone, to call an ambulance, help her sister. Eventually, someone did call 911. It was Tyra. Police only needed about 12 hours to figure out who'd been there when Michelle Lai was shot. The girls from the Chevy gave some pretty good descriptions, of both their assailants and the pit bull. Police found the dog sitting outside its owner's house, and when the owner matched the girls' descriptions of Joe, police knew they'd found one of the Wright View group. Pretty soon, several people had been rounded up, and the police were knocking at Tyra's door, too. Before long, Tyra Patterson found herself in an interrogation room. The police were angry. This shooting was tragic, and they wanted to nail as many people as possible for murder; not just LaShawna, who pulled the trigger, but the others too. But how do you get someone who didn't kill anyone to go down for murder? Well, one tool that police and prosecutors have is that felony murder rule we mentioned earlier. This little-known law can be the source of enormous injustice.
Steve Drizin In its purest form, the felony murder rule is felony plus death equals first degree murder. So if you commit a felony and during the course of that felony someone dies, you are convicted of first degree murder; even though you never intended to kill somebody, even though you couldn't have foreseen that somebody would have died, it is the intent to commit that felony that substitutes for the intent to kill. They didn't coerce Tyra into confessing to murder because they knew before the interrogation who the murderer was. It was LaShawna Keeney. All they needed to do was get Tyra to say that she grabbed a necklace by force from one of the girls in the car. That's a robbery. They could get her for the same murder that LaShawna Keeney committed.
Laura Nirider So getting Tyra to say she snatched the necklace instead of picking it up is what this interrogation is all about. N ow, like all interrogations that aren't fully recorded, there are two stories about what happened in the room. There is the official story told in police reports. And then there's the story told by the defendant. They almost always diverge. In Tyra's case, the police story goes like this: Tyra admitted to being there, but she denied being involved in the robbery, assault, or shooting. But as she was being booked, Tyra spontaneously announced that she wanted to tell the truth and admitted reaching into the car and grabbing the necklace off one of the girls. That's when police captured her confession on videotape. No coercion, no drama. But according to Tyra and her lawyer, she confessed after a very different sequence of events. Here's David Singleton, that lawyer who called Steve about this case. David has represented Tyra for the past eight years.
David Singleton Tyra recalls very clearly the detective screaming at her, saying she's a murderer, that she's going to be locked up for the rest of her life, cursing at her, telling her she's an effing liar; because Tyra was saying, "I didn't rob anybody. I didn't shoot anybody." Eventually, the detective takes Tyra out of the interrogation room and walks her past where Tyra could see Rebecca sitting in a police car about to go home. And Tyra's like, well, you know, "Rebecca's going home. Why am I not going home?" T he detective said, "Well, she gave us a videotaped statement," and Tyra said, "Well, I'll give you a videotaped statement." The detective said, "Well, you don't have anything to tell us." And Tyra said, "Well, I picked up a necklace from the ground," and the detective smiled and took her back in to try and charge her.
Laura Nirider The police tell Tyra she just needs to change one thing in her story about the necklace: She didn't pick it up off the ground; instead, she robbed it from the girls. "After all," they say, "wouldn't it be better to go down for a robbery than for murder?" Getting caught up in a murder is what Tyra's has been terrified of all along. So this is what breaks her. She falsely admits to snatching the necklace off one of the girls in the Chevy. Now she's confessed to robbery and the cops have their felony. It's only at this point that the video camera gets turned on.
Detective Describe the necklace. Well go ahead and describe the necklace. Was it a gold necklace?
Tyra Patterson Fake.
Detective Fake gold?
Tyra Patterson I went and grabbed it, I don't know why I grabbed it.
Detective OK. And from which girl in the backseat did you take that necklace?
Tyra Patterson The driver, on the back.
Detective The person behind the driver, OK, yeah.
David Singleton What struck me about Tyra's appearance in that video is she did look tired; she also looked scared. At one point, you hear somebody screaming in another room, and she's just terrified; and at another point, I recall very vividly, she's looking to the detective for an answer. I mean, she was trying to satisfy what he wanted because she thought that was her ticket to go back home and continue on with her life. And the minute that she finished the video and the camera was turned off, she said, "Do I get to go home now?" And he said, "No, I'm booking you for murder." That's when the nightmare truly began.
Laura Nirider How is Tyra to know that one little change in her story was enough to charge her not just with robbery, but with felony murder? That one little change made Tyra as liable for Michelle Lai's death as the murderer herself.
Steve Drizin You know, there's a huge irony in this case. They needed Tyra to confess to a robbery, not a theft. And the way they did it was they told her it's better to go down for a robbery than it is for a murder. And she accepted that explanation.
Laura Nirider She believed that premise.
Steve Drizin Everybody believes that-
Laura Nirider Of course!
Steve Drizin ...because they don't understand the felony murder rule. We've seen police officers lie before, but this is a particularly dangerous lie because it sets somebody up for murder charges.
Laura Nirider There's actually a second irony in this case, too, because here you have the felony murder rule being applied to Tyra Patterson. She didn't have a weapon with her that night. She didn't know the people who did come to that scene with weapons. She tried to intervene and stop the fight. She tried to de-escalate as things were getting more serious and more violent. And when she couldn't stop the fight, she walked away. After the gunshot, she called 911. Tyra's a hero here. She's not a murderer. She's the one, though, who ends up going down. Tyra Patterson's only crime, if it even was a crime, was picking up a necklace from the ground. But suddenly, somehow she was on trial for murder and facing life in prison. And like too many murder trials, Tyra's was a shitshow.
David Singleton So Tyra was represented by attorneys in the local public defender office. The problem was that they were overwhelmed and didn't have the resources to defend Tyra appropriately.
Laura Nirider The primary evidence against Tyra with her confession, but her attorneys never argued that it was false or coerced. In fact, no one, not the judge or the jury, ever heard Tyra's account of her interrogation. Her attorneys actually advised her not to testify in her own defense, not to tell her side of the story. And why not?
David Singleton They said that she was too unsophisticated and talked too much like she was from the ghetto; that she'd be eaten alive by the prosecutors. And I think that Tyra got written off in that way.
Laura Nirider The jury did hear, though, from Holly Lai, who testified that she'd seen Tyra reaching into the car. A few other girls from the Chevy testified the same way. Their stories went unchallenged by Tyra's lawyers, even though they could have called Rebecca to testify that Tyra never snatched the necklace off anyone. The lawyers didn't even play Tyra's 911 call, which would have showed that she was trying to help.
David Singleton We were able to find out by talking to the jurors years later that, that 911 call would have made a difference had they heard it. When I played it for them, they're like, "We never would have convicted her had we known that she'd called 911." But the defense gave the jurors nothing to work with. Nothing.
Laura Nirider And that's how Tyra Patterson, the woman who never touched a gun or robbed anyone, was convicted of one count of aggravated murder and four counts of aggravated robbery. When the jury announced its verdict, she stood up and shouted in disbelief: "But I didn't do it." It didn't matter. She was sentenced to 43 years to life. That's 13 more years than LaShawna, who actually pulled the trigger. And in December 1995, Tyra Patterson became Ohio Department of Corrections Inmate Number 37737. Fast forward to 2011. Tyra Patterson had been in prison for just over 16 years, not even halfway through her sentence, when she got her first break. Ohio Governor Ted Strickland learned about her case. He thought it was unfair that her sentence was more severe than the shooter's; so he issued what's called a commutation.
Steve Drizin Tyra tried to stop this from happening. She walked away before the shots were fired. All she did was pick up a necklace off of the ground. LaShawna Keeney brought the gun to this event, and she pulled the trigger that led to Michelle Lai's death. It is grossly unfair for LaShawna to be sentenced to 30 years and for Tyra to be sentenced to 43 years. And that's why the governor commuted Tyra's sentence to 16 years to life, which made her immediately eligible for parole.
Laura Nirider But Tyra's hopes of freedom were dashed a few months later. The Ohio Parole Board denied her request for parole, and they said she had to wait up to seven years before asking again. They said her crime was too severe. That's when David Singleton got involved. He'd heard about her case from a friend and he decided to go meet Tyra Patterson. When David met Tyra in prison, she was different from that 19-year-old girl whose future looked like a broken promise. Behind bars, Tyra had redeemed her own promise. She'd gained skills in prison, working as a porter, a food service worker, a maintenance person. She'd gone from an illiterate sixth-grade dropout to someone who earned her GED. She'd participated in more than 200 self-improvement programs. And most importantly, she was becoming an incredible advocate, for herself and for justice. When she told David she was innocent, he believed her. And he set out to prove it, enlisting Steve Drizin's help in the process.
Steve Drizin There's no DNA miracle for people like Tyra, and for most of the people who are locked up in prison. I mean, DNA is only present in maybe 10 percent of all cases.
Laura Nirider Well, that's the thing: Even if the shooter had left DNA on the gun, everybody already knew that LaShawna Keeney was the one who pulled the trigger. This is not a case where DNA testing is going to exonerate Tyra Patterson.
Steve Drizin What she needed here was a reinvestigation and advocacy.
Laura Nirider As David and Steve dove into the case against Tyra, they found some major cracks. First, David discovered that the victim's sister, Holly Lai, had testified at the trial of another one of the Wright View girls, a year before Tyra's trial. Back then, Holly had testified that Tyra wasn't the one who reached into the car and snatched the necklace. It had actually been someone else. Second, David uncovered the very first statements the girls in the Chevy gave to police, right after Michelle Lai was shot. And when he and Steve reviewed those early statements... Well, it was revealing.
Steve Drizin Remember, some of these were given within an hour or two of crime, so the memories were fresh for the witnesses. And Tyra was like a ghost. The two people who were mentioned far less than everybody else in all of these accounts were Tyra and Becca. And so that's squared with Tyra's story.
Laura Nirider Third, David talked to some of the other Wright View girls, the ones who were more involved in what went down that night. Three of them signed affidavits supporting Tyra's innocence, including LaShawna Keeney. LaShawna confirmed that, far from participating, Tyra had actually tried to stop the confrontation from escalating. Before long, Tyra's case was attracting attention among some pretty influential people. Ohio State Senator Peggy Lehner visited Tyra in prison, and she was so compelled by Tyra's story that she got four other state senators to back Tyra's efforts for release. Celebrities and advocates also began getting involved. Everyone from actor Alfre Woodard to Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, they began tweeting and posting in support of Tyra, using the hashtag #IAmTyraPatterson.
David Singleton This "I am Tyra Patterson" campaign, the hashtag, what it meant was they were in solidarity with her. People were saying, "We're there for you. We see you. We hear you." And that was a powerful message.
Laura Nirider You know, I think the first time I heard the name Tyra Patterson was when I opened up my Twitter feed one day and there I see a video of Steve giving a speech and holding a poster that says in big black letters, "I am Tyra Patterson."
Steve Drizin That was take five of that video, because the first take went along what I thought was really well. And then I picked up the sign... I am holding it upside down.
Laura Nirider Great. Great.
Steve Drizin The point of the campaign was to demonstrate that anybody could falsely confess if pressured by the police. And #IAmTyraPatterson, to me, was making that message loud and clear.
Laura Nirider I could have been Tyra Patterson.
Steve Drizin Or my child could have been Tyra Patterson.
David Singleton That's how Tyra became, in my view, her best advocate. It was exposing people to her so that they could see her as a living, breathing daughter, sister, and person who was going to shine in the community if we could get her free.
Laura Nirider One person this message reached was the victim's sister.
David Singleton 2016 is when Holly Lai got in touch with me; and her husband said, "Holly wants to meet you at Michelle's grave on Michelle's birthday." So I showed up. I didn't think they were going to come. I was like: This cannot be happening. Holly said, "You know, Tyra didn't do this. And in fact, that night, Tyra walked by as we were talking to the police, and the police officer looked and said, 'Is that one of the ones who was involved?' And we all said no."
Laura Nirider On the night of the crime, Holly had seen one of the other girls snatch the necklace, not Tyra. But when she heard about Tyra's confession, Holly figured she must have been mistaken. After all, who would confess to a crime they didn't commit? Years later, Holly learned about false confessions, and she realized Tyra must have given one. Holly's memory had been right all along: Tyra was innocent. And Holly agreed to support Tyra's release. In 2017, Tyra Patterson was granted parole after 21 years behind bars. On Christmas morning, she walked out of prison, bent down, and kissed the winter snow. It wasn't exoneration; but at last, she was free. To quote Shawshank Redemption, Tyra Patterson got busy living.
David Singleton She's my colleague now at the Ohio Justice and Policy Center. She's soaring in her job as our community relations expert... She speaks multiple times a week to different community groups; mentoring young people not just in our community, but in places across the country... Tyra basically runs Cincinnati. Everybody knows her... She is the brains behind this social justice mural that is going up in downtown Cincinnati, featuring women who have spent a long time in prison and have come home and are doing well. And her face is one of the ones up there. It's just sad that her life was interrupted for 23 years. But now she's living, and it's a beautiful thing to see.
Tyra Patterson Hello.
Steve Drizin Tyra?
Tyra Patterson Hey, Steve, how are you?
Laura Nirider Hey, Tyra. It's Laura.
Tyra Patterson Hey, Laura. How are you?
Laura Nirider I'm great.
Steve Drizin Are you at home?
Tyra Patterson I am.
Steve Drizin So Tyra was living in an apartment for a while, and now she's a homeowner...
Tyra Patterson Yes.
Laura Nirider What was it like to have your own place after being in prison so long?
Tyra Patterson Oh, my God. The privacy. No yelling, no screaming, no arguing. It was beautiful. I slept like a baby. And I just felt alive.
Laura Nirider Man, if I were you, first thing I would have done is, like, stood in the shower for three hours. There's nothing like a long shower.
Tyra Patterson No, Laura. I didn't even do that. I stayed in a bathtub for three hours.
Laura Nirider Oh, yes, you did!
Speaker Cause, you know, in prison we didn't get to take a bath. So all I ever wanted to do was just come home and take a bubble bath.
Laura Nirider I'm going to go take a bubble bath in your honor.
Steve Drizin I think I am, too, actually.
Tyra Patterson Steve, I love you.
Laura Nirider Tyra hasn't given up on exoneration. She and her legal team are still fighting to clear her name. If you want to follow Tyra's case and send her a message of support, look her up on Instagram @tyra.imani.777. She inspires Steve and me every day. That's the story of Tyra Patterson. Join us next week when we'll tell you about Ronald Kitchen, who was tortured by Chicago police into falsely confessing to murder. And it turns out, he was far from the only one. We'll talk about how Ronald got his freedom, and how the city's police torture scandal got exposed. Wrongful Conviction: False Confessions is a production of Lava for Good Podcasts, in association with Signal Co. No1. Special thanks to our executive producers, Jason Flom and Kevin Wortis. Our production team is headed by senior producer Anne Pope, along with producers Jaji Hammer and Jess Shane. Our show is mixed by Jeannie Montalvo. John Colbert is our intrepid intern. Our music was composed by J. Ralph. You can follow me on Instagram or Twitter @LauraNirider.
Steve Drizin And you can follow me on Twitter @SDrizin.