Imagine spending nearly 30 years of your life in jail for a crime you did not commit. For many members of the band “Exoneree,” that unbelievable plight was a reality.
On Friday, Sept. 23, the Ohio Innocence Project along with the five formerly wrongfully convicted band-mates came to John Carroll University to address the systematic judicial injustice that is wrongful conviction, their stories of survival and their common passion for music.
Exoneree was founded through the Ohio Innocence Project Talent Show held by OIP co-founder, Mark Godsey. Each year, the organization holds an event that gathers all exonerates and adversarial attorneys in the United States to celebrate life and raise awareness of the reality of wrongful convictions. Instead of signing up for the contest as individuals, William Michael Dillon, Antoine Day, Eddie Lowery, Ted Bradford and Raymond Towler signed up together. From there, the band was born.
Although their common backgrounds brought them together, each band member has a unique story to tell.
Raymond Towler was charged with sexual assault in 1981 after the 11-year-old victim misidentified his photo from the photo lineup. There was no forensic evidence linking him to the crime and additionally, he had an alibi and had several witnesses to confirm his statement.
At age 24, Towler was sentenced to life in prison. In 2004, Towler teamed up with the Ohio Innocence Project for the first time to apply for DNA testing. After four years of fighting bureaucratic red tape, the clothing sample of the victim matched with DNA that did not match Towler’s profile. After 29 years, he was, at last, free.
Towler’s connection to music helped him emotionally cope with his reality while unlawfully imprisoned and now helps him move on from his trauma to his newfound freedom.
“When I was 12-years-old, that’s when I first started playing guitar, so it’s something that I’ve always wanted to do, it was like a dream. Through the whole 29 years, that was held back. Sure they have programs in the institutions, but they only let you go so far. A lot of my music was held back, so being free and playing music is a dream,” Towler said.
Ted Bradford, a Washington state native, took 15 years to clear his name. He was convicted of sexual assault although there was no forensic evidence linking him to the crime.
Bradford was put under questioning for nine hours without food or water and because of these tactics, Bradford eventually wrongfully confessed.
In the course of his questioning, Bradford’s wife sent an attorney to the confession, but police denied access to the legal counsel. Because of his confession, he was sentenced to 13 years in prison at age 23.
In 2002, the Innocence Project out of Washington took his case and successfully obtained DNA evidence from a piece of tape found on the victim and also on the victim’s jeans. The testing revealed a male DNA profile that excluded Bradford, and in 2007, Bradford’s conviction was reversed. After that, the state retried Bradford, and eventually acquitted him.
“For me, music was a big part of coping with being in prison. In Washington state, there were music programs at several of the prisons where you are allowed to go to the recreation area and play music and it really kept my spirits up, music was always there for me.”
“Now, it’s a really great opportunity to be able to play with these guys. It’s a brotherhood, it’s been great for me,” Bradford said.
Antoine Day, from Illinois, was convicted of murder in 1992, when the police brought him in for questioning based on testimony based on one of the victim’s nephews. Day had many witnesses, including one of the victims, who stated that he was elsewhere on the day crime, but his attorney failed to cross-examine the witnesses on those facts.
In 2001, Day was granted a new trial based on ineffective assistance of counsel, and the following year, he was presented with his certificate of innocence. He spent 14 years in jail.
William Michael Dillon was convicted of murder in 1981 and got sentenced to life in prison.
At the trial, his ex-girlfriend testified that they had seen Dillon standing over the victim wearing the shirt that was seen at the crime scene. A dog handler said that his dog had connected him to the crime with his scent, a man claimed to have picked up Dillon as a hitchhiker, and additionally, there was a jailhouse snitch that testified that Dillon had confessed to him.
At first glance, the evidence seemed objectively clear, but two weeks later, Dillon’s ex-girlfriend recanted and said that the only reason she testified against him was because they threatened to charge her as an accessory and she was also having an affair with the lead investigator on the case.
The dog handler’s credibility came under fire when he was found to have wrongfully accused another man a few years later. Despite this, Dillon was denied appeal of his case time after time. Eventually, he was granted DNA testing that excluded him from the crime and he was released from prison in 2008 after serving 27.5 years on jail for a crime he did not commit.
Eddie Lowery, a Kansas native, was convicted in 1982 of sexual assault at age 22. Early one morning in July 1981, there was an elderly woman who was assaulted by a burglar.
Lowery’s car broke down nearby a few hours later and he was taken in the police station for questioning and was denied food and water and eventually confessed using the information the police had provided him. Eddie was granted DNA testing in 2002 and was released in April of 2003. Even after release, Lowery spent nine years clearing his name of sex-offender status.
Despite their lot in life, members of the Exoneree band don’t believe in negativity.
“We talk about all that we’ve been through, but it’s another battle when we get out. You thought you proved yourself already but you’re still punished. I’ve been out a long time so I struggled with employment and life got really difficult. I refused to give up, I refused to let it destroy me, so I keep going and keep going, and keep going,” Day said.