After nearly three decades in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, Raymond Towler was exonerated in May 2010. 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.
On May 24, 1981, an 11-year-old girl and her 12-year-old male cousin were walking their bikes in a Cleveland 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.
The Investigation and Identification
Roughly three weeks after the crime, Raymond Towler was stopped by a park ranger near the same Cleveland park for running a stop sign in his car. The ranger noticed that Towler resembled the composite sketch of the rapist that was created with the help of one of the child victims, and brought Towler into the police station where his photo was taken. Several days later, both victims chose Towler from a photo array, although it took the boy nearly 10 minutes to choose his photo, and the girl nearly 15 minutes. Two other witnesses who saw the perpetrator in the park that day also chose Towler’s photo from an array. Based on these identifications, Towler was charged with rape, assault and kidnapping.
The Trial and Forensic Evidence
The two victims testified at trial that Raymond Towler was the perpetrator who had attacked them. Both witnesses from the park also testified and identified Towler. One of the witnesses testified that she saw the perpetrator three times on the bike trail the day of the crime. He was alone the first two times and accompanied by the victims on the third occasion. The other witness testified that he saw the perpetrator alone and passed by him on the trail.
The only physical evidence presented at Towler’s trial came from a forensic analyst who had microscopically examined a hair combed from the victim. He testified that the hair appeared to be a pubic hair and was a “negro” hair. The female victim was white. The analyst said, however, that the hair did not possess a sufficient number of unique individual characteristics to be linked to Towler.
Towler also took the stand. He testified that he did not commit the crimes and presented an alibi, that he was at home when the crimes took place. Several witnesses corroborated his alibi.
Despite Towler’s alibi and the lack of physical evidence tying him to the crime, he was convicted and sentenced to life – the sentence required by law because the victim was less than 13 years old. An additional 12-40 years were added to his sentence for the crimes against the boy.
Post-Conviction Appeals and Exoneration
More than 20 years after Towler was convicted, Ohio enacted a law allowing DNA testing in very limited circumstances. Towler and the Ohio Innocence Project immediately filed an application for DNA testing, and access to testing was granted in 2004. Shortly thereafter, prosecutors were asked to send the pubic hair from the crime scene to the lab. The envelope arrived at the lab empty. One month later, prosecutors said they were mailing material from under the victim’s fingernails. Again the envelope arrived at the lab empty. Eventually, some clothing worn by the victims was sent to the lab. No semen was found on the clothing, and testing ended.
In 2008, Towler’s case was one of the 30 featured in a Columbus Dispatch series on Ohio prisoners who were seeking DNA tests that could potentially prove their innocence. Towler and the Ohio Innocence Project requested additional DNA testing under the new law, and the clothing was retested, even though it had previously tested negative for semen. The clothing was tested using a relatively new technology called Y-STR testing, which isolates male DNA by focusing on the Y chromosome.
In May 2010, the final and fourth round of DNA results came back. The Y-STR results from the girl’s underwear excluded Raymond Towler as the perpetrator, finally clearing him after more than 28 years in prison. Days later, Towler was a free man. He was 24 years old when he was convicted, and 52 on the day of his release.