The Exoneree Band Rocks Against the Pain of Wrongful Convictions
BY LYNN MOLLER
Minutes are like hours
And hours seem like days
Days feel like months
Just wasting away
Nothing here to look at
But this tired body of mine
Not much to hear
Just my heart beating time
How the hell can a person
Withstand so much pain?
How can anyone endure
And not go insane?
They are lyrics from a song called “Four Years in the Hole,” co-written by Antione Day. But he not only penned them, he lived them.
Day, along with Ted Bradford, Bill Dillon, Eddie Lowery and Raymond Towler, collectively spent more than a century in prison, all of them wrongfully convicted of another person’s crime. Their stories are heartbreaking, gut wrenching, frustrating, and compelling tales of injustice. And they tell them – through music.
Yes, these remarkable men have banded together – literally. They call themselves The Exoneree Band.
All five members (see sidebars explaining the details involving each man’s wrongful conviction) have different backgrounds but shared similar ordeals; they now use the power of music to heal, inspire, and fight for justice.
Guitarist Towler leads the band. Dillon is the rhythm guitarist and bassist. Bradford sings and plays bass guitar. Lowery is a singer and acoustic guitarist. Lead singer and drummer Day says, “As musicians we come together to bring attention to the issue. We want to spread this message, and make people aware of what goes on in our judicial system. If we don’t do anything about it now, it’s only going to get worse. So many innocent people are still incarcerated.”
Day explains that music has always been his first love and, thankfully, the Illinois prison where he was housed gave inmates access to equipment. As a result, Day was even able to start a band behind bars. Bradford says he played the guitar as a teenager and had dreams of making it big. He continued playing in prison. Dillon and Lowery taught themselves to play guitar while locked up, allowing them to focus and concentrate on the positive, they say, and let the prison walls symbolically crumble. Towler says music, and being a musician, carried him through his entire incarceration and that, upon leaving prison, it was a priority for him to continue with this musical identification. “Music chose me,” he explains. “I’ve been playing since age 12.”
The men met at an Innocence Project conference and discovered their shared experiences and passion for music. They began backing each other up as they performed individually. “We were like-minded people playing independently, and then we clicked together,” Towler recalls. The leap to performing jointly seemed natural; it was fulfilling to play together, especially as they sang about their feelings and the work that had been done to free men and women around the country.
Members of The Exoneree Band, left to right: Raymond Towler, Bill Dillon, Eddie Lowery, Antione Day and Ted Bradford
Since forming in 2011, the men have played mostly at other events connected to criminal justice reform. Their music is a blend of country, rock, jazz, pop, and blues. You can hear some of their music here on YouTube. “We get together as much as we can to perform at benefits and fundraisers,” Day explains. “We’ll do whatever we can to raise awareness and bring attention to wrongful convictions.”
Towler adds, “We value the time we’re together. But even when we’re not, we keep in constant contact to discuss our selections, get our points across, and see what direction we want to go with our music.”
The Exoneree Band in concert.
Songs written by the band members are powerful reflections of what they’ve endured. To appreciate the experiences and resilience of these men, one only has to listen to “Black Robes and Lawyers,” “Only Freedom Matters,” or, again, “Four Years in the Hole”:
Loneliness is torture
And torture is their way
To crush the human spirit
Bit by bit each day
But sometimes there’s a light
Shining bright from deep inside
It brings me hope and peace
And eases my troubled mind
Film producer and director Jeff Marpe is spearheading an effort to make a documentary about the band. “I met these guys when I was asked to shoot a short video about the band,” he explains. “I had no idea about the issue of wrongful convictions, and I was a bit nervous. I had visions of what people who spent years in prison were like.”
Upon meeting The Exoneree Band, however, “I was embarrassed that I had these preconceived notions, because these guys are nothing like I thought,” Marpe continues. “This band presents these gentlemen in a different light. (A wrongful conviction) can happen to anyone, and these people are not who you think they are.” The documentary is titled Through the Trees: The Exoneree Band.
On September 1, 1990, two men were shot during a craps game outside a liquor store on Chicago’s west side. The suspect fled in a black car. One of the victims died and the other was treated for a gunshot wound in the back.
Antione Day owned a black car. A family member of the deceased victim implicated Day. The surviving victim picked Day out of a lineup. Eight days later, Day was arrested for murder and attempted murder. At trial, the surviving victim testified that he had been pressured into making the lineup identification and that it was a lie. Nonetheless, on November 12, 1992, Day was found guilty and sentenced to 60 years for murder.
On October 10, 2001, the Illinois Appellate Court granted Day a new trial based on his defense lawyer’s failure to present witnesses who could have cleared him. On May 8, 2002, the prosecution dismissed the charges against Day. In September 2010, Day was granted a certificate of innocence.
Day served 10 years in prison. Contributing factors to his conviction were eyewitness misidentification and inadequate legal defense.
The executive producer of the film, Tom Denison, recalls Marpe calling him as he was shooting the video. “He told me, ‘You have to get down here. This is unbelievable!’” Like Marpe, Denison didn’t know what to expect. “Were these five angry guys? It took only a moment for me to realize that these guys are the warmest, gentlest, and, certainly at this point in their lives, the most grateful guys,” he explains.
“The idea behind this documentary first and foremost is to help the band,” Denison explains. “Let’s help these five men who endured the worst possible things you can imagine.” At the same time, Marpe insists, “It’s not going to be a ‘woe-is-me’ story. These five guys have a remarkable attitude. They can smile and play this kind of music even after what they’ve been through. These guys are inspirational.”
Ted Bradford was at work in 1995 on the day a rape occurred in a neighborhood close to his house in Yakima, Washington. But a clerical error mistakenly showed he was off work that day. Six months later, Bradford, arrested on an unrelated charge, became the suspect in this rape case. During an eight-hour police interrogation, Bradford, confused by the clerical error and wanting to be done with the harsh interrogation, admitted that he “probably” committed the rape.
He now wishes he could take his confession back. The confession, however, contained numerous inconsistent details regarding the crime. The victim in this case never identified Bradford as her attacker, and Bradford did not match the physical description of the attacker. Yet he was convicted of rape and burglary in 1996, based on his admission and neighbors’ testimony that they had seen his car near the crime scene. Bradford served nine years in prison, always maintaining his innocence, before being released on community supervision.
The Innocence Project Northwest Clinic, based at the University Of Washington School Of Law, began working on Bradford’s case in 2002. It took years to complete several rounds of DNA testing. Results showed that the DNA on the mask that the perpetrator wore at the time of the crime did not match Bradford’s. His conviction was reversed in 2007 based on the result of DNA testing. Prosecutors, still convinced that Bradford was the perpetrator, decided to retry him. The second trial ended in February 2010, with a jury acquitting Bradford of first-degree rape and burglary.
It took nearly 15 years for Bradford to clear his name. Contributing factors to his conviction were eyewitness misidentification and false confession/admission.
One challenge in making the film, however, is that the five band mates all live in different states—California, Illinois, Ohio, and Washington. “We want them to spend much more time together, in a band boot camp,” Denison says. “They need to get a stage presence together, and we’ll capture their interactions on film.” He wants seasoned musicians to coach and prepare them for big performances. He adds, “This will be a real-time running story, hopefully culminating with the band walking on stage in the first city of a multi-city tour.”
The filmmakers also plan to take a deep dive into the band members’ personal lives. Each has a story, they say, that is alternately incredible, infuriating, engaging, and heartbreaking. Whether it be a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, a result of race or socio-economic status, or becoming the victim of an unjust justice system, the men’s experiences are wrapped in raw emotion.
In 1981, just days away from signing with the Detroit Tigers, Bill Dillon was sitting in his car, at a beach in Brevard County, Florida. A murder had occurred at this location a few days earlier. Despite being miles from the beach on the night of the crime, with witnesses corroborating his alibi, Dillon was convicted of first-degree murder. Unreliable testimony from the handler of a scent-tracking dog and testimony from a jailhouse informant played a huge role in his conviction. So, instead of heading off to spring training, Dillon headed off to life in prison.
Dillon filed several appeals in the five years following his conviction; all were denied. In 1996, he began to seek access to biological evidence for DNA testing, but these requests were also denied. In 2007, with the help of public defenders and attorneys at the Innocence Project of Florida, Dillon again requested DNA testing.
Based on the results of these DNA tests, which scientifically excluded Dillon, he was released from prison on November 18, 2008, and his exoneration became official when prosecutors dropped all charges against him the next month.
Dillon served 27 years in prison. Contributing factors to his conviction were eyewitness misidentification, informants, and unvalidated/improper forensic science.
Marpe and Denison also want to build awareness around wrongful convictions, mass incarceration, and prompt people to action. “What can we do to enact real change?” Denison asks. “We have to do something.” He points to Farm Aid, the annual festival created 30 years ago that has helped enact legislative change for the benefit of farmers. “How about if we create something called Justice Aid? We’re looking for incremental change in our justice system. This documentary can help. We can engage through music and film. Music runs through all of us, and film provides the platform and broadest appeal to reach millions of people.”
“We don’t need to preach to the choir,” Marpe adds. “The last thing we want to do is make a documentary that speaks only to those who know this problem already exists. The band and its music can spread that word widely and reach new audiences. You’ll get to know these five guys through this film. You’ll care about these guys.
In the summer of 1981, an elderly woman in Ogden, Kansas was attacked and raped in her home. That same night, Eddie Lowery, a 22-year-old soldier, was involved in a minor traffic accident in a nearby neighborhood. Police suspected a connection and took Lowery into custody. He was interrogated for hours in which he was subjected to police coercion and informed that he failed the lie detector test; he was even denied an attorney after asking for one. He finally broke down and confessed, believing that telling the officers what they wanted to hear was his only avenue to get out and prove his innocence. Investigators supplied Lowery with details of the crime; these details were eventually incorporated into his confession.
Although Lowery recanted the statement, the court ruled that the confession was made voluntarily and allowed it into the trial. The confession became the cornerstone of the prosecution’s case.
Lowery’s first trial ended in a hung jury. He was tried again in January 1982. This time the jury convicted him of rape, aggravated burglary, and aggravated battery. Lowery was sentenced to 11 years to life in prison. He served nine years of that sentence and was released on parole in 1991.
Lowery was able to procure DNA testing on the biological evidence in 2002. He had been forced to register as a sex offender every year since his parole and wanted to clear his name and reputation. DNA results excluded Lowery as the perpetrator, and in April 2003 the judgment and conviction against Lowery were vacated.
Lowery waited more than 21 years to be vindicated. Contributing factors to his conviction were false confession/admission and unvalidated/improper forensic science.
“Before you can make the problem better,” Marpe continues, “you have to realize there is a problem. A lot of people have no idea this issue exists to the extent that it does.” He points to statistics indicating that there are more than two million people currently in American prisons; researchers disagree as to how many might have been wrongfully convicted but estimates range between 2 and 10 percent. “That’s staggering,” Marpe exclaims. “We need a lot more work done to rectify this problem. It’s a total injustice to people. All of these guys went through atrocious circumstances.”
Day agreed to participate in the documentary “so people will say, ‘Are you serious? What can I do to not let this happen again? What can I do to be a part of this movement?’”
Towler was definitely willing to have his story told. “I’m all for anything that helps raise awareness and brings publicity to wrongful convictions,” he says. “It baffles me that so many people are unaware of this issue.”
On May 24, 1981, an 11-year-old girl and her 12-year-old male cousin were walking their bikes in a Cleveland, Ohio park when they were lured into a wooded area by a man who claimed there was an injured deer that needed their help. The man pulled a gun and assaulted the boy, forcing him to lie on the ground while he raped and sexually assaulted the young girl.
Three weeks later, Raymond Towler ran a stop sign next to the park where the assaults occurred. Noticing that he somewhat resembled the composite sketch of the suspect, the officer brought Towler to the police station where his photo was taken. Both victims, as well as two other witnesses who saw the perpetrator in the park that day, chose Towler from a series of photos shown to them by police. Based on these identifications, Towler was charged with rape, assault, and kidnapping.
Towler’s alibi that he was at home at the time of the crimes was corroborated, and there was no physical evidence tying him to the crime. Yet in September 1981 he was convicted and sentenced to life; this sentence was required by law due to the young age of the victims.
In the early 2000s, Ohio enacted a law allowing DNA testing. For years, Towler and the Ohio Innocence Project sought DNA testing in the case, and the fourth round of testing finally proved his innocence. An Ohio judge choked back tears as she ordered his release on May 5, 2010.
Towler was 24-years-old when he was convicted, and 52 on the day of his release. Contributing factors to his conviction were eyewitness misidentification and unvalidated/improper forensic science.
As with most documentary projects, funding the film has been challenging. “We want to get this to the biggest platform possible,” Denison says. “We want to make this sustainable. Amazon and Netflix are interested, but this is a slow process and not a guarantee.” Those interested in donating to the project can do so here, through the International Documentary Association.
“We want to make a good film that enables these five guys to do what they want to do—play music and get their message out there,” Marpe explains. “Again, the wrongfully convicted are not who you think they are. And If more people knew who was being sucked into that system, there would be more of a call to action.”
One listen to the haunting lyrics of “Four Years in the Hole” makes it clear just how urgent that call really is.
So cold, so dark they try to make my life hard
But every day I kneel and pray and I ask for
The power for the hour
For this day
Never find it to be so hard, one hour on the yard
All I had was my past as I lay in the tall, tall green grass
Couldn’t see no future, near or far
Four years in the hole, just me and that guard
I spent four years in the hole
Four years in the hole
I spent four years in the hole
My mind, my body, my soul
Lynn Moller is a member of The Reporters Inc.’s Board of Directors. To learn more about her, click here to go to our Team page. Lynn can be reached at email@example.com
Members of The Exoneree Band, left to right: Raymond Towler, Eddie Lowery, Bill Dillon, Ted Bradford and Antione Day
Editor’s Note: The Reporters Inc. continues production on its upcoming multi-part documentary series about wrongful convictions. For more information click here.
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