by Jayne Yerrick
Raymond Towler is not a criminal. But he spent 29 years of his life behind bars.
Wrongfully convicted for the rape and kidnapping of an 11-year-old girl, Towler was given a life sentence in 1981. Unfortunately, stories like Towler’s are far too common.
The Innocence Project, a non-profit organization with the mission to free wrongfully convicted people from prison, conservatively estimates that around 20,000 of the people currently in prison are innocent despite their convictions.
A chapter of this project, the Ohio Innocence Project, was able to finally free Towler from prison by using DNA evidence to exonerate him.
The basis for Towler’s conviction was shaky at best. Towler was found guilty for two reasons: he roughly matched the drawing of the rape suspect and his hair looked similar to the hair found on the victim.
Towler felt that these pieces of evidence were not enough to land a conviction, so when his trial came, he did not expect to be sentenced. He soon found that his innocence was not enough to keep him out of prison, and the judge sentenced him to life for a crime he did not commit.
“The judge asked me, ‘Do you have any last words?” Towler explained.
Towler’s response simply was: “I didn’t do it.”
He then entered prison as an innocent man and did not see freedom for 29 years. Yet through it all, Towler somehow was able to maintain a positive outlook on life. Towler explained that being unfairly placed in jail could have allowed him to have a dark state of mind, but he did not let his situation break him.
“Learn to let yourself be happy,” he said. “If you can change things, great, change it. But what if you can’t change it? You have to just go with it and find what the silver lining is.”
Finding the silver lining is just what Towler did. Towler’s passion for music began at age 12, and he did not let this flame die while he was in prison. After about a year of being in prison, he was able to get a guitar and use music as an escape from the bleak picture that surrounded him. Towler said that he even taught fellow inmates how to play. Now that he is free, Towler continues to play music, this time in a band.
Along with his love of music, Towler said that he also painted while in prison. When he was in high school, Towler said that he loved taking art classes. This artistic inclination was put to good use in prison, as Towler was able to make a bit of money by selling the artwork he created.
These two passions are part of what kept him going while in prison. Music and art are what helped him survive.
“You can’t just let everything be terrible in your mind, no matter where you are,” Towler said. “For us to survive, we have to use our imagination or just use logic. Think about ‘what’s the good side?’”
Throughout the entire presentation at Bently Hall, Towler reiterated the importance of being grateful for what you have. Forced into a dark, dismal situation, Towler somehow was able to chase the light.
When closing his talk, Towler asked audience members to raise their hands if they were happy with their lives. After he was greeted with just a few raised hands, Towler left the audience with a powerful message about gratitude.
“If you do anything after you leave here, take a look at your life,” he said. “Make a list of what is good. Sometimes you just don’t see how good you have it.”