article

05.10.10

An Innocent Man Goes Free

Raymond Towler was wrongfully convicted of rape and spent half his life in prison—until DNA evidence secured his release. Mansfield Frazier on how the case exposes a racially rigged justice system.

Raymond Towler is a better man than you or I. He’s a black man who endured nearly 30 years of incarceration for the rape of a white 11-year-old girl, a crime he didn’t commit. In any prison in America, that kind of charge—especially against a black man—ensures that the time served will be hard indeed.

Nonetheless, Towler emerged from his nightmarish ordeal amazingly unscathed psychologically, and totally free of bitterness. In interviews since his May 5 release from an Ohio prison, he has repeatedly stated that he harbors no ill will toward those who mistakenly identified him as the perpetrator and then falsely testified against him in court. He knows that he can’t get those lost years back so he simply wants to get on with his life. Talk about true grit.

It’s estimated that 7 percent of all of the people behind bars in America are innocent, a figure that one prosecutor said is within “acceptable bounds.”

I, on the other hand, would have been banging my head against the cell bars from morning till night, to the point where I became so crazed guards would have placed me in a rubber room. I’d have been driven as mad as a hatter. Once again, Towler is one strong, spiritual man.

Judge Eileen Gallagher’s courtroom, where I went to witness his release, was fairly crowded, but rather than sit in the jury box that had been designated for the press pool, I took a seat in the back row, near his family members. When the appointed time of 9 o’clock came and went, while Towler sat serenely at the defense table surrounded by a phalanx of lawyers, one family member commented to another, “You’d think that after wrongly imprisoning him for almost 30 years, they would at least start court on time to let him go.” Indeed, while the criminal justice system is often quick to capture, prosecute, and imprison, it’s very slow to release.

Judge Gallagher finally took the bench, asked Towler for his indulgence, and then ponderously recapped the case, ending with the evidence that exonerated the man who served the fourth-longest sentence of any innocent person ever freed in America by DNA.

Everyone, including the judge, was teary-eyed over the freeing of an innocent man, but what she or anyone else connected to the criminal justice system didn’t care to examine is how this injustice occurred in the first place. Judge Gallagher, fine and fair jurist that she is, happens to be an integral part of the two-tiered criminal justice system that we have erected and maintained in America. Sadly, every criminal lawyer in the country knows the system is unfair—and most of them go along with it unquestioningly.

The obvious answer to Towler’s conviction is that the underage victim, as well as the adult eyewitnesses that placed him at the scene of the crime on that day, were simply wrong, innocently mistaken. End of story, right? Wrong.

The New Jim Crow, a brilliant new book by Ohio State University law professor Michelle Alexander, details how our highly vaulted criminal justice system came to be flawed and how it allows, rather than protects against, such mistakes when the person standing at the Bar of Justice happens to be black or brown.

It’s estimated that 7 percent of all of the people behind bars in America are innocent, a figure that one prosecutor said is within “acceptable bounds.” Sure, 7 percent doesn’t sound like that many folks—unless, of course, you or a loved one are in that cohort of roughly 150,000 innocent souls serving someone else’s time. And by extrapolating incarceration figures, it’s apparent the vast majority of those imprisoned innocents are people of color.

An old joke in the black community goes: “We all look alike to white folks… that is, until they get on the witness stand. Then, they damn sure can positively ID us every time.”

The fact is, numerous tests over the last 30 years have proved again and again just how faulty eyewitness testimony can be, and more than 75 percent of the more than 200 people to date who have been cleared by DNA were convicted on wrongful eyewitness testimony. Which raises the question: How many more misidentified persons are rotting away in American prisons in cases where there is no DNA evidence available to free them?

We Americans love to congratulate ourselves on having the fairest legal system in the history of humankind, and on paper it does look pretty good, especially if you happen to be white. But the system that has always been relatively bad for blacks and browns has actually been changing for the worst over the past four decades, as Professor Alexander points out.

Buttressing her arguments is another Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Slavery by Another Name, by The Wall Street Journal’s Atlanta bureau chief, Douglas A. Blackmon. And if you have the stomach for it, also read Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire, by Robert Perkinson. It’s so brutal I can only handle it in small doses, yet it sits there by my bedside, demanding to be read. Let’s face it, some people don’t want to know the horrible truth about justice and incarceration American style; it’s knowledge that would make many too uncomfortable, and to know about the faults would, one hopes, require efforts at systemic change.

Just how fair can an admittedly adversarial criminal justice system be when one side, the state, has unlimited funds and resources, and the other side, the defendant, often has to rely on notoriously underpaid and overworked public defenders? With these kinds of inequities still firmly in place, what happened to Raymond Towler 30 years ago still can and does happen today.

After two weeks without solving the rape case in the 1980s, MetroParks rangers were beginning to feel the heat. Not many African Americans visited the Rocky River Reservation, where the crime occurred, so when Towler showed up, he was “it.” Crime solved, case closed, everyone could go back to sleep at night secure in the fact justice had been squarely done.

Do undereducated and unemployed blacks and browns commit more crimes? Of course, but in nowhere close to the numbers by which persons of color are overrepresented in the prison population, and Professor Alexander documents how the American criminal justice system has been getting this neat bit of legerdemain off. A first-rate researcher, she proves that blacks and browns are routinely going to prison for “crimes” that whites routinely get a pass on, especially petty drug crimes, which make up the bulk of prison populations. However, as she points out, selective enforcement is common in other areas of policing as well.

That most of the misidentified people released from prison in America are persons of color should give all lovers of liberty pause.

Granted, the prosecutors in the Towler case bent over backward to get the DNA testing done to prove his innocence, but other prosecutors, 30 years ago, bent over backward to ensure that the rape case against him was quickly closed and marked “solved”—facts be damned.

Some folks recall that a little over a decade ago another man, Michael Green, was freed in the same manner for the same crime, yet when it came time for him to collect the money the state owed him for false incarceration, the prosecutor, in cahoots with the Ohio attorney general, threw up roadblocks. We can only hope that doesn’t happen to Towler.

The real kicker is, even though Green was proven innocent, he says most of society still treated him as if he were guilty, and he found it virtually impossible to get a decent job.

As of this writing, there’s no word of any apology being proffered from the people whose inaccurate testimony caused Towler, an innocent man, to spend over half of his life behind bars.

I do, however, wish Towler didn’t take this quite so well. I’m thankful he doesn’t appear to be damaged psychologically, but I wish he were more angered, a bit more outraged. His equanimity lets those responsible for his years of illegal incarceration off the hook. I’m concerned it makes prosecutors more inclined to be careless with someone else’s freedom.

Update: This article originally stated Towler was released from a Cleveland prison.

Mansfield Frazier is a native Clevelander and former newspaper editor. His regular column can be seen on CoolCleveland.com. An avid gardener, he resides in the Hough neighborhood of Cleveland with his wife Brenda and their two dogs, Gypsy and Ginger.