by Thomas J. Sheeren
Associated Press Writer
CLEVELAND (AP)—An Ohio man tasted freedom for the first time in nearly 30 years May 5 after a judge vacated his conviction because DNA evidence showed he did not rape an 11-year-old girl.
“It finally happened, I’ve been waiting,” Raymond Towler, 52, said as he hugged sobbing family members in the courtroom.
He walked from the courthouse, arms around relatives, amid the smell of freshly cut grass, blooming trees and a brisk wind off Lake Erie. He was headed to an “everything on it” pizza party.
Asked how he would adjust, Towler responded: “Just take a deep breath and just enjoy life right now.”
Towler had been serving a life sentence for the rape of a girl in a Cleveland park in 1981. Prosecutors received the test results May 3 and immediately asked the court to free him.
In a brief, emotionally charged session, Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court Judge Eileen Gallagher recapped the case, discussed the recently processed DNA evidence and threw out his conviction. She also told him that he can sue over his ordeal.
Towler smiled lightly, nodded and kept his intertwined fingers on his lap.
“You’re free,” the judge said, leaving the bench to shake Towler’s hand at the defense table. The judge choked back tears as she offered Towler a traditional Irish blessing.
The Ohio Innocence Project, an organization that uses DNA evidence to clear people wrongfully convicted of crimes, said Towler was among the longest incarcerated people to be exonerated by DNA in U.S. history.
Towler was arrested three weeks after the crime when a park ranger who had stopped him on a traffic violation noticed a resemblance with a suspect sketch. The victim and witnesses identified him from a photo, police said.
Carrie Wood, a staff attorney with the project, said the identifications were questionable.
The latest technology allowed separate DNA testing of a semen sample and other genetic material, possibly skin cells, she said.
Attorneys with the project at the University of Cincinnati have been working on the Towler case since 2004 and Towler said that and his faith had given him hope.
“That’s how I’ve been living these last years, I’ve just been keeping hope,” Towler said as relatives and friends crowded around him after the court session, some whooping, “Alleluia.”
Prosecutor Bill Mason said his staff would test crime-scene evidence to try to identify the attacker.