Tyra Patterson and Joe Girandola, president of Art Academy of Cincinnati, after she received an honorary degree from the school.

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CNN  — 

When Tyra Patterson was 19 years old, she was imprisoned for a crime she says she didn’t commit. For 23 years, she spent her life locked in a prison cell.

Patterson’s convictions for murder and robbery have not been overturned, but while she’s been working to clear her name, she has been making a difference in the lives of others.

Now a free woman since getting released on parole on Christmas Day in 2017, she has completed her GED and speaks about mass incarceration and wrongful convictions at law schools, prisons and community centers.

Patterson was surprised with an honorary bachelor’s degree from the Art Academy of Cincinnati on October 31 after giving the graduates a commencement speech.

“When I gave a speech to these incredible college students, I couldn’t help but think ‘What am I doing here? I’m a sixth grade dropout,” Patterson, 45, told CNN as she shed tears. “When they surprised me with the degree, I felt like I was really graduating. I never got that chance, and I really did feel like I was a part of them. I felt worthy, like it allowed me to realize I’m OK, I’m important.”

David Singleton, a lawyer with the Ohio Justice & Policy Center (OJPC) who represents Patterson, says Patterson is “just shining.”

“She has really made a difference in her community and across the country,” Singleton told CNN. “She is an example of what it means to never give up hope and to make the most of your life in the worst of circumstances.”

Sentenced to 43 years in prison

Patterson’s story began in 1994, when 15-year-old Michelle Lai was killed during a robbery near Patterson’s apartment in Dayton, Ohio.

On the night of the robbery, Patterson and her friend had a chance encounter with a group of five people who were later involved in the robbery, Singleton told CNN. They had never met three of those people and had only met two of them a few days before the incident, Singleton said.

While Patterson says she was not part of the robbery crew, and did not rob or physically harass anyone, she witnessed the robbery and tried to stop them to no avail.

Unable to help and afraid of getting involved, Patterson and her friend left the scene, Singleton said. As they walked away, they noticed a necklace on the ground and Patterson picked it up, Singleton said.

When they returned to the apartment and heard Michelle getting shot and someone crying out, Patterson called 911, according to Singleton. In efforts to find the suspects, Patterson voluntarily went to the police station to answer questions, Singleton said.

Nearly two hours later, after pleading her innocence to the detective interrogating her, Patterson confessed to robbery for being in possession of the necklace; Singleton said the confession was coerced. She was handcuffed and charged with murder.

The detective who interrogated Patterson denied her allegations that he coerced to confess to robbery during questioning, according to Dayton Daily News. The detective did not record any part of the interrogation except for the 10 minutes in which Patterson confessed, according to Singleton.

Dayton Police and the detective have not responded to CNN’s requests for comment.

“She was charged with murder based on the felony murder doctrine, which allows a murder charge based on a person’s commission of a serious felony during which a death occurs,” Singleton said.

Patterson’s murder charge was also based on “an aiding and abetting theory” that she was part of the robbing crew that encouraged the shooter to fire the gun, he added.

Patterson was charged and convicted of five counts of aggravated robbery and one count of aggravated murder. She was sentenced to 43 years to life in prison.

Improving herself in prison

Patterson says that she dropped out of school at age 11 because she was homeless. By the time she went to prison, she did not know how to read or write, let alone defend herself. But she spent her days in prison making up for her lost education.

Now a community outreach strategy specialist for OJPC, she speaks about mass incarceration and wrongful convictions at law schools, prisons and community centers.

Patterson painting one of her pieces.

While in prison, Patterson became a certified GED tutor, completed a paralegal training program and received a steam engineer’s license.

She says fellow inmates called her the “jail house attorney” for using what she learned to help them gain their freedom.

Just three weeks after her release, she joined the OJPC as a paralegal, and has since helped educate communities about criminal legal system reform. When she isn’t speaking or educating, Patterson focuses on students through her outreach to high schools and colleges.

“I vowed to myself I would be the person dedicated to showing kids how much change they can have on the world,” she said. “I want to talk to every student who will allow me to. I just stress to them, kindness will open doors that education won’t. Be kind. You have to be kind, no matter what happens to you.”

Patterson's art.

She also used her decades behind bars to create art, which Patterson said was “her only way to mentally escape.” Now a free woman, she uses art to share her story as well as the stories of other artists impacted by incarceration.

One of her works of art is a mural in Cincinnati she worked on for two years in collaboration with the nonprofit ArtWorks and other local artists. The mural, titled “Time Served vs. Time Saved,” features five women, including Patterson, who were incarcerated.

“I can’t forget what happened to me, but I will do what I can to make sure it doesn’t happen to anyone else,” Patterson told CNN. “When people meet me, they ask ‘So you aren’t bitter at all?’ No. I spent more than half of my life in prison. I look at my life so much differently. I don’t want to be bitter.”

Murder victim’s sister wrote a letter to the governor

Patterson was released from prison in 2017 shortly after Holly Lai Holbrook, the victim’s sister, wrote to then-Ohio Gov. John Kasich that she no longer believed that Patterson participated in the robbery that led to her sister’s murder. Holbrook, who was sitting next to her sister when she was killed, urged the governor to free her.

In Holbrook’s letter to Gov. Kasich, she said she remembers asking Patterson for help on the night of the shooting and had told officers who arrived at the scene that Patterson was not involved in the robbery, according to the letter obtained by The Guardian.

“I feel bad that Tyra has been in prison so long for crimes I now believe she did not commit,” Holbrook wrote in the letter. “I want to focus on what I can do to help obtain Tyra’s freedom and right the wrong she has suffered. That’s why I’m writing this letter.”

“For a long time I didn’t want to publicly support Tyra’s release because I was fearful and anxious about how my family would respond. But I’ve decided that what’s more important is that I tell the truth about how I feel,” she added.

CNN could not reach Holbrook for comment.

She kissed the ground upon release

When she was released from prison, she embraced her new life with open arms.

“The second I was released, I kissed the ground,” Patterson said. “I didn’t care if it was nasty, wet, snowy, muddy. I didn’t care. I promised God, if I ever get out I’m kissing the ground and giving thanks to you.”

She will remain on parole until December 25, 2022. Even after her parole, she will remain a convicted murderer in the eyes of the law.

“The fight hasn’t stopped and it won’t stop until we clear her name,” Singleton told CNN.

Patterson after giving a speech for the Art for Justice Fund.

“For those 23 years, life dealt her the worst hand possible, but she found a way to improve herself, get educated and dream about what she would one day accomplish. And now she’s living those dreams,” he said.

Patterson was released early because the board believed she “served a sufficient portion of her sentence” and had “significant support in the community to facilitate her entry,” according to the parole board decision sheet, obtained by CNN.

When Singleton and his team began representing Patterson in 2012, they chose to apply for clemency because it was “their only available option” since they had no newly discovered evidence to warrant a new trial, according to Singleton.

One year after Patterson’s release, her application for clemency to the Ohio Parole Board was rejected and “presumed as no longer necessary,” Singleton said, since she was released early on parole

In the application, obtained by CNN from Singleton, multiple issues with Patterson’s prosecution were pointed out.

Patterson’s friend who was with her that night was not called to the stand, according to the clemency application.​ A recording of the 911 call Patterson made when she heard the gunshot was never made available to members of the jury, six of whom gave affidavits saying they may not have convicted Patterson if they had listened to the recording, the application said.

Patterson and others convicted in the case were given polygraph tests, in which they all said Patterson was not involved in the robbery and was not there when Lai was shot, according to the application.

Patterson and her legal defense team may be in a celebratory mood lately but say they will not stop working on Patterson’s case until her name is cleared and she is officially declared innocent.

“She did not commit those crimes. I am certain of that. Victim Holly Lai came forward to say that Tyra was innocent,” Singleton said. “The prosecutor disputes that Tyra is innocent and it has been a fight. We were lucky to get her out when we did. But we have more work to do to get her name cleared.”