From: The Guardian
Tyra Patterson says she was an innocent teenage bystander who ran away from a murder. Prosecutors say she was party to a killing. In the first chapter of a Guardian special report, explore how a young woman from poverty-stricken Ohio fell victim to America’s addiction to incarceration – and what might still set her free
Prisoner 037737 has been locked up for 21 years and counting. In America, that is not very exceptional. You could say it’s almost ordinary.
Step back beyond the cell here in Ohio, a state which by itself has almost 70,000 people in prison and jail, and No 037737 becomes a grain of sand buried in a desert of incarceration. There are 2.2 million people locked up in the US – more than 100,000 of them women.
Today, the 7,787th day behind bars for Prisoner 037737, one out of every 110 adult Americans lives under the lock and key of the planet’s largest jailer: the United States of America. That represents almost one-quarter of the world’s total prison population, and almost one-third of the world’s incarcerated female population.
Prisoner 037737 is also black, which makes this American life all the more unexceptional. In Ohio, the ratio of incarcerated black people to the general African American population is almost six times the equivalent ratio for white people. Nationally, one in 18 black women can expect to be imprisoned at some point in their lives – a quotient that rises, for black men, to one in three.
But cold numbers can only teach you so much about mass incarceration in America today. Because Prisoner 037737 is also a person. She has a name. Her name is Tyra Patterson.
Tyra Patterson proclaims her innocence in crimes that have taken her away from her family and the outside world since the age of 19. Now 40, she has been gathering new evidence she believes will clear her in the murder of a 15-year-old girl, Michelle Lai, in 1994.
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. The story that emerges is one woman’s struggle to have her claim of innocence heard within a system resistant to listening anymore.
“A tragedy happened in this case: Michelle Lai didn’t get to live her life,” David Singleton, the executive director of the Ohio Justice and Policy Center and associate professor at NKU Chase College of Law who is Patterson’s current attorney, said. “Tyra Patterson is alive, but she has been branded a murderer and her life has been taken away from her. The greatest tragedy of Tyra’s case is that she had a story of innocence to tell, and it never got told.”
Beginning today, with two diverging accounts of a murder, that story will be told.
But this is no re-trial: it’s the story of an American criminal justice system in which questionable convictions are secured and then doggedly upheld, swallowing up thousands of vulnerable people in the process.
Along the way, we hope to provide surprising clues as to how a life behind bars came to be so very unexceptional – so ordinary – in 2016, in the land of the free.