When Justice Fails, Where Do We Turn?

David Singleton, Executive Director of The Ohio Justice and Policy Center

David Singleton, Executive Director of The Ohio Justice and Policy Center

When David Singleton, Executive Director of The Ohio Justice and Policy Center (OJPC), was asked to give Tyra Patterson legal help, he resisted. OJPC, a law office that represents people who were violated in prison, doesn’t usually tackle wrongful conviction cases. However, after some convincing, Singleton met with Patterson and heard her side of the story.

At the time, Patterson had spent 18 years behind bars for a murder she didn’t commit. She told Singleton about the faults in her case: the absence of her passed polygraph tests, the recording of her 911 call, a false robbery confession, and more.

Angered with the system’s failures and determined to achieve justice, Singleton decided to represent Patterson as her attorney. Along the way, he witnessed Patterson’s character in action as she maintained strength and forgave those who wronged her.

I sat down with Singleton to discuss the failures of justice in Patterson’s case and to hear his perspective on how someone can forgive the system in similar situations.

In Tyra’s case, where are the main points where the justice system went wrong?

If you’re poor in this country and you’re brown or black, you don’t get the same kind of justice if you’re white or of means. Economics has a lot to do with it. I think poor white people and poor black and brown people get screwed if they don’t have resources. There are some phenomenal public defender offices in this country, and there are some that aren’t. And it's not because their lawyers don’t care. They have a lack of resources and too many cases to handle. I think Tyra, at her trial, had lawyers who didn’t do the things they should have done to present a defense.

Like the 911 call.

The 911 call never came in. Crazy. You have to put that in.

Her case involves what we now know is a false confession — an admission to grabbing a necklace off of someone in the car. You’ve got to put her on to explain how it is she said something that is untrue. You have to. You have to put her on to say “This detective was yelling at me, screaming at me, telling me I’m a liar over and over. He was pointing at me, standing over at me, staring at me. I’ve never been in the system before. I’ve never been arrested before. I was scared. I thought I was going to go home.”

Imagine if she stood at the podium and said those words, and the 911 call was introduced. There might have been a different outcome in the court that day. That was a complete failure of justice—and that happens every single day in courts throughout the country where folks don’t get represented the way they should.

Now how about the failures leading toward her release.

You know that we sought clemency—we were asking Gov. Kasich to pardon her or commute her sentence.  We spent nine months investigating the case. We got the 911 call. We talked to every one of the co-defendants who were convicted and got them polygraphs. Six people passed polygraphs saying “She’s not involved. She didn’t do it.” Six people can’t beat a polygraph each. We had that. We had affidavits from six of the jurors saying they never would’ve convicted her if they knew about the 911 call.

We went to the prosecutor and said, “Listen, here’s what we’ve submitted to the parole board. We wanted to talk to the prosecutor to see how we could work together to right a wrong.” Prosecutors are supposed to be about justice, not about preserving a conviction. They fought us every step of the way.

The other thing I think is a failure of justice was the parole board. They were so dismissive of our clemency application. Within four months of filing Tyra’s clemency petition, we get an email back from the board saying, “We’ve considered everything and we are not going to give her a hearing.” Therefore, automatically, that means the recommendation is negative.

#IAmTyraPatterson campaign video

So how did you convince the parole board to give Tyra a hearing?

After the parole board said no, we had our false confession expert, Steve Drizin, come meet Tyra. He was like, “You know, Tyra is her own best advocate, we have to get more people in to meet her.”

We got Jeanne Schmidt to come in, along with Joe Deters and Jim Petro. Petro started working on The Ohio Innocence Project and was working closely with the governor. We got a whole bunch of people to meet Tyra and advocate for her. Trough all that advocacy, we got the parole board to reverse course and give Tyra a hearing.

By an 8-2 vote, they still recommended against clemency. One of the things a parole board wants someone to do is admit guilt—but Tyra’s not guilty of this. She’s innocent.

What other efforts did you lead to get Tyra out of prison at that point?

There were different phases of it. Steve Drizin helped us understand that we needed to bring more people in here. That kicked off the part of the campaign where we brought in elected officials to advocate with the governor.

Also, the Change.org campaign. We had no idea we would get 300,000 signatures. Our goal was to help Tyra feel like people cared. If we got 10,000 signatures, we would’ve hit it out of the park. The first weekend, we were up to 50,000. That was crazy. And that helped her. That helped her stay okay mentally as we went through ups and downs.

Because of the Change.org petition catching fire, The Guardian got interested and did that amazing series. As we were thinking on how to capitalize on the series, we came up with the #IAmTyraPatterson campaign. That was another way to mobilize people and get them interested. Also to make Tyra feel l like there were people out there who loved her and that she mattered.

We also did pray-ins, which were religious events in three cities on the same day. That was also meant to build interest in her case. We got some coverage of that. Then, we had this massive call-in, where over 2,000 people called into the governor’s office in a two-week period.

Tyra Patterson (left) and David Singleton (right) on Patterson’s release day, December, 25, 2017

Tyra Patterson (left) and David Singleton (right) on Patterson’s release day, December, 25, 2017

Do you think it’s possible for someone to look back and forgive those who did wrong in their case? And how?

Yeah, I do think its possible. I don’t know how I could do it. But, what I’d say is this: anger eats people up. Tyra was able to forgive even before she got out. That has to do with her spirit. Yes, there was pain. I’ve seen that woman cry when she was in deep pain about something. But she didn’t hold hatred deep within her heart. Not holding hatred isn't the same thing as forgiving, but she did forgive.

One of the most powerful moments of forgiveness I’ve ever seen was when Juror Nancy Day met Tyra. Nancy immediately knew who Tyra was. She walked into the room, her eyes full of tears, and said “I am so so sorry.” Tyra started crying, and she told Nancy it wasn’t her fault. That was powerful.

What advice do you have for anyone who has been wrongfully convicted?

I would say, folks should fight as hard as they can to hold on to their humanity in a system that is determined to strip it from them. If you can hold on to your humanity—if you can see a human being with a name, not a number, when you look in the mirror—it might be easier to hold onto your hope.

There’s no such thing as false hope. I remember a corrections officer said to Tyra, “I don’t know why that lawyer keeps coming up here, he’s just filling you with false hope.” But it wasn’t false hope. If Tyra was still incarcerated right now, I would say it’s not false hope. Don’t give up. Even if there aren’t people out there fighting to get you out, there are others who are trying to change the way the system works so it may benefit you down the road.

From time to time, I like to lean on Martin Luther King’s words: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Every time we are facing a struggle and it’s taking a long time, I remember that.