(ABC NEWS)- Tyra Patterson recently had a moment she once thought she could only dream of: She got to hug the teens she says helped save her life.
Patterson wasn’t much older than them when she was imprisoned for murder — even though she didn’t pull the trigger or even have a gun.
Her confession, which she says was coerced, raised questions about the judicial system and led to a campaign to set her free.
Then, in a stunning turn, the victim’s sister came to her defense, saying she didn’t believe Patterson was responsible for her sister’s death.
It was the early hours of Sept. 20, 1994, when Patterson and her friend Becky Stidham were hanging out and smoking marijuana in Patterson’s apartment in Dayton, Ohio. Sometime after midnight, they went outside to look for a set of missing car keys and came across five young people whom they knew in passing. They tagged along with this crew, eventually getting in a car with three of them.
There was another group of young people cruising those streets that night — 18-year-old Holly Lai Holbrook, her 15-year-old sister, Michelle, and three other friends were driving around stealing items from garages, or “roguing,” as Holbrook called it.
Holbrook said her car was blocked in an alley by the car carrying Patterson.
“I had a really bad feeling, the knot in my stomach that told me something was going to happen,” Holbrook said.
According to Holbrook, a group of people emerged from the second car and tried to rob them. One of them was then-21-year-old Lashawna Keeney, who had a gun.
“Holly Lai called out for me, she reached her head out the window and was like please make them stop, please tell them we don’t have anything,” Patterson said. “I walked up on Lashawna Keeney and … I was like, ‘Hey, why don’t you chill out?’ And that’s when she brandished the gun.”
Keeney then put the gun to Holbrook’s temple while another member of Keeney’s group tried to get a necklace her sister Michelle was wearing, Holbrook said.
“[Keeney] kept on [saying], ‘You need to shoot this one,'” Holbrook said. “That’s when she took the gun across me, and I turned and she shot her.”
Holbrook’s sister was shot dead right in front of her.
“I jumped out of the car and I started screaming,” Holbrook said. “I remember falling to the ground and going, ‘Why? Please somebody help us,’ and I start running door to door to door, just pounding on doors, ‘Someone call 911, someone call 911.'”
Holbrook said no one came out to help her. Patterson said she had already walked away by the time Keeney pulled the trigger, but unbeknownst to Holbrook, Patterson had heard the gun shot and was on the phone with 911.
“I was very scared,” Patterson said. “They said, ‘What is your name?’ I lied and said, ‘My name is Tiara’ because I knew that somebody had got hurt and I didn’t want to be a part of it.”
Later that day, police brought Patterson in for questioning. During her interview, which was partially videotaped, Patterson said she felt under pressure and falsely confessed to ripping a necklace off one of the victims. Patterson now says that she picked the necklace off the ground and stole it, but she was not part of the initial armed robbery.
Tyra Patterson is now working as a paralegal and community outreach director for the same organization that helped her get out of prison.
She has her own apartment in Cincinnati and is out on parole, under supervision for the next five years, and continues to use her story as a cautionary tale for others, sharing her message at schools across the nation.
“My main message is to tell them to stay in school, graduate and reach your goals,” Tyra Patterson said.
Tyra Patterson even stayed in touch with the group of high school students who gave her hope during those dark days in prison. She finally got to meet the students, whom she calls “my babies” in person for the first time.