A routine traffic stop changed Ray Towler’s life. In 1981, Ray, an Army veteran and aspiring musician and artist, was visiting the Rocky River Reservation, a park in Cleveland, Ohio, when he was flagged down for rolling through a stop sign. Park rangers took Ray into custody and questioned him about an incident involving a 12-year-old boy and 11-year-old girl, cousins who had been coaxed into a wooded area in the park by an unknown man three weeks before. The boy was assaulted, the girl was raped. Soon after, Ray was charged with kidnapping, rape, and felonious assault. He was 24 years old.
At the beginning of the trial, the presiding judge called Ray into his chambers, dismissing his court-appointed attorney so he could speak to Ray alone. The judge told Ray to stand by the picture window in his office and take a look at the view overlooking Lake Erie. “It was a beautiful view, with sailboats on the lake,” Ray says. The judge told him, “If you don’t plead guilty to these charges, you won’t see a view like that for a long, long time.”
Despite the judge’s warning, Ray did not plead guilty. Rather, he testified in his own defense that he had never seen the victims before and had spent the day of the crime at home with this family. Eyewitnesses--a young woman roller skating and a man who had been stopped by police for possession of an open container--testified that they saw one black man in the park that day, and that man was Ray Towler. The trial lasted for seven days, the jury deliberated for one morning, and Ray Towler was convicted and sentenced to life in prison plus 12 to 40 years.
In 2004, the Ohio Innocence Project and Ray Towler’s attorneys petitioned to have evidence recovered during the investigation tested for DNA. Three samples from the victims were sent to the crime lab--fingernail scrapings, hair, and the girl’s clothing. Two of the envelopes arrived empty. The last piece of evidence, the girl’s underwear, was tested, but the existing technology was not sophisticated enough to detect DNA from the 23-year-old sample.
After further petitioning, the sample was tested again, and this time, the results were definitive. Ray Towler did not rape that little girl. On May 5, 2010, Ray appeared in court one last time. The presiding judge apologized for the miscarriage of justice, offered him a traditional Irish blessing--May the road rise to meet you; may the wind be always at your back--and said the words Ray Towler had been awaiting for 28 years and eight months: You’re free.