“An Ohio man tasted freedom for the first time in nearly 30 years Tuesday after DNA evidence showed he did not rape an 11-year-old girl and a judge vacated his conviction.
“It finally happened, I’ve been waiting,” Raymond Towler, 52, said as he hugged sobbing family members in the courtroom.
Towler had been serving a life sentence for the rape of a girl in a Cleveland park in 1981. He was exonerated with help from the Ohio Innocence Project, an organization that uses DNA evidence to clear people wrongfully convicted of crimes. The organization says Towler was among the longest incarcerated people to be exonerated by DNA in U.S. history. The project adds that the longest was a man freed in Florida in December after serving 35 years.
Despite the wasted decades, in a sense, Towler is lucky because he received a life sentence, which bought him the time to prove his innocence. Others are not so fortunate. According to a 2008 Justice Department report, death row waits rose from seven years in 1986 to 12 years in 2006. Though the waiting time has nearly doubled, had Towler received a seven, or 12-year sentence death sentence, he would have been killed by the state before given the opportunity to prove his innocence using the best science available.
Of course, this isn’t an argument for longer waiting sentences. These kinds of frequent exonerations serve as reminders that the death penalty is cruel, barbaric, a terrible waste of badly needed funds, and sometimes serves as a sadistic, wasteful, expensive way to kill innocent people.
And the fate of any victim of state-sponsored executions is a cruel one. Back in October 2009, Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland delayed two executions to allow a full review of lethal injection procedures. Strickland ordered the reprieves for inmates Lawrence Reynolds and Darryl Durr in the midst of a legal battle over Reynolds’s execution. The idea was that the systematic killing of human beings had to be made “more humane.”
At the time, I wrote that Strickland must have been well-acquainted with these types of executions going terribly wrong.
There was no humane way to kill 53-year-old Ohio inmate Romell Broom, who wept and tried to help his executioners find a vein, only to leave the death chamber alive.
In 2006, a Ohio prisoner named Joseph A. Clark lifted his head from the gurney after his vein collapsed and said “It don’t work, it don’t work, it don’t work, it ain’t working,” repeatedly, according to one witness. This led to “moaning, crying out and guttural noises” 30 minutes later. An hour and a half after the execution started, Clark finally died.
In 2007, another Ohio prisoner, Christopher Newton, took two hours to die due to executioners’ difficulty finding a vein, the very problem that caused the current execution delays.
Of course, there is no humane way to take a life. Killing is, in itself, abhorrent and violent even when a prisoner is injected with chemicals to paralyze their muscles — removing all outward appearances of the tremendous pain they experience in their last dying minutes — so the executioner feels moderately at peace with their role in torture.
This sick process is doubly tragic when it’s revealed the victim was innocent. It is here that I really want to stress the amazing work done by the Innocence Project, which thus far has exonerated 253 people in the United States by DNA testing, including 17 who served time on death row. These people served an average of 13 years in prison before exoneration and release.
It just doesn’t make sense to keep a system of murder in place when it’s been proven the death penalty doesn’t serve as a crime deterrent, and is actually more expensive than locking up prisoners for life. Had it not been for the amazing work done by IP, 253 innocent people would be dead, and for what? The illusion of safety?
Jeffrey Deskovic, a man who served 16 years in prison for a murder and rape he did not commit, told me Sonia Sotomayor, then a judge on the Federal Court of Appeals, refused to review his case — even though DNA evidence proved his innocence — because of a clerical error. It was only because of the work done by IP that Deskovic is now a free man.
Deskovic doesn’t want to see another innocent prisoner executed by the state. “It has nothing to do with being soft on crime, or hard on crime. It’s all measures which have to do with increasing the accuracy of the criminal justice system. Every time the wrong person is convicted, then that means a perpetrator remains free to strike again, which is what happened in my case,” he says.
During the interview, Deskovic pointed out that Sotomayor will have a vote in the Supreme Court appeal of Troy Davis, another prisoner who claims he is innocent and wrongfully convicted, and who has drawn a slew of public support. Davis was convicted for the 1989 killing of a white police officer. Since then, seven of the nine non-police witnesses have recanted their testimony, and there is no physical evidence tying him to the crime scene.
Davis’s hearing before SCOTUS has been set for June 23.
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– Allison Kilkenny