Monday, May 17, 2010

DNA test clears American musician after 28 years in jail for rape

Sometimes, you just have to let the story speak for itself.

“You’re going to have to bear with me,” the judge said. “I know you’re anxious.”

For a man wrongly convicted of rape almost 30 years ago, Raymond Towler did not look anxious.

Perhaps it was because a few more minutes in custody made little difference after so long. Perhaps it was because he had a reasonable idea of what Judge Eileen Gallagher was about to say.

In an extraordinary scene, barely noticed in America this week amid coverage of the enormous oil spill and the New York bomb plot, Mr Towler, a 52-year-old musician, walked free from a Cleveland court after spending more than half his life in prison for a crime of which he always maintained his innocence and which DNA analysis proved he did not commit.

His case is not unique, but the way it ended was uniquely moving. It may serve to galvanise a national movement of lawyers and activists who have used DNA evidence to free more than 250 inmates since 1992, almost all of them black men, but who have so far lacked the resources to tackle thousands of other cases in which experts’ fear of “junk science” and racial bias have produced unsafe convictions.

The moment of truth came just after 9am on Wednesday. After a brief recap of his arrest, trial and conviction for the rape of an 11-year-old girl in 1981, Judge Gallagher turned to the results of DNA analysis of skin and semen samples that she ordered two years ago from a lab in Texas. Both samples came from the victim’s underwear. They did not match the girl’s DNA, but they did match each other.

“They are consistent with deriving from the same individual, the assailant of the victim,” Judge Gallagher said. “And that individual was clearly not Raymond Towler.”

Mr Towler, in a white shirt and black V-neck sweater, blinked and briefly lowered his head. “It’s been a long time coming,” Judge Gallagher noted. Her voice breaking, she then read to the court an Irish blessing more commonly heard at weddings: “May the road rise to meet you, may the wind be always at your back. May the sun shine warm on your face, may the rain fall softly upon your fields. May God hold you in the palm of his hand, now and forever.”

Wiping tears from her face, the judge stepped forward to shake the hand of a man known to the state of Ohio for more than quarter of a century as Inmate A16468. “Good luck to you, Mr Towler,” she said. “You’re free.”

Mr Towler shook hands with his lawyers, a team of three from the Ohio Innocence Project at the University of Cincinnati, then hugged his brother and sister. Asked how he had been able to get up each morning knowing he had been wrongly convicted, he said: “You’ve got to get up, you know what I mean? Get up with God in your spirit and God will lead the way forward.”

Under state law, Mr Towler is entitled to $40,330 (£27,350) for every year of his wrongful imprisonment, not including lost wages and any damages he may win by suing the Ohio Department of Corrections. A previous inmate wrongfully jailed for a shorter period was awarded $1.4 million.

Mr Towler appeared to bear no grudge. “Evidently a crime was committed and I’ve got to respect that they tried the best that they could,” he said. “They had the wrong person. It took them a while to straighten it out but all I care about right now is that they did straighten it out.”

The authorities still have no idea who the culprit is, but the prosecutor, Bill Mason, said that the case was open and there would be a new examination of crime scene evidence.

Outside the court Mr Towler began taking in his new surroundings en route to a pizza restaurant. “Even though I was raised here I’ve still got to do a lot of sightseeing,” he said.

Despite pleading not guilty and offering a solid alibi, Mr Towler was sentenced to life without parole on the basis of a Cleveland police officer’s suspicion during a routine traffic stop that he resembled the man sought in a rape that had occurred two weeks earlier. He was later picked out by the victim from an identity parade.

“One of the leading causes of these wrongful convictions is witness misidentification, especially with crossracial identification,” Carrie Wood, one of Mr Towler’s lawyers, said. “There is still racial prejudice in our society. Anyone who tells you different just doesn’t have those interactions.”

Hat tip to AfOR