CLEVELAND — An Ohio man tasted freedom for the first time in nearly 30 years on Wednesday 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 his family members, 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 Monday and immediately asked the court to free him.
Towler deflected a question about demanding an apology and said he understood justice can take time.
"I think it was just a process, you know, the DNA," he said. "It just took a couple of years to get to it. We finally got to it and the job was done."
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. The longest was a man freed in Florida in December after serving 35 years, according to the project.
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.
"That was the test result that we got this week and it excluded Mr. Towler," she said. "Because Mr. Towler's conviction was in '81, the technology did not exist to do the kind of DNA testing that we can do now."
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."
Clarence Elkins, who was freed in 2005 in Akron on the basis of DNA evidence after serving seven years in the rape and murder of his mother-in-law and the rape of a 6-year-old relative, watched from a rear courtroom seat.
"Today is a great day. Once again, justice is served a little late, but better late than never," he said. "Almost 30 years is a very long time. One day is too long."
Elkins, 47, won a $1.075 million settlement from the state for wrongful conviction and said he would recommend that Towler get counseling and take his new freedom day by day.
"It's like being reborn again, a whole new life," Elkins said.
Prosecutor Bill Mason said his staff would test crime-scene evidence to try to identify the attacker.
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