Raymond Towler spent nearly 30 years behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit. The Cavs gave him a window to the world.

Game 5 was the end. That was LeBron James’(notes) last night in home whites, the night he looked beaten from
the first quarter, the night that crushed so many dreams in Cleveland. Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals – the clincher in Boston – was an afterthought. And looking back, so was James’ fraudulent free agency and his made-for-TV spectacle. The letdown left fans with their own decision: Is it worth hanging in there? The Cavs won’t be contenders again for a while, and the town’s title drought could reach 50 years. What’s the point?

But those ready to walk away might want to stick around for a story. It involves a fan at Game 5. Like everyone else, he took his seat that night thinking LeBron could deliver a title. He believed LBJ would stay. But Raymond Towler hasn’t changed his mind or changed his faith. He wants to buy Cavs season tickets for the first time. Maybe for everyone else in that arena that night in May, Game 5 was the nastiest of reality checks. But for Towler, it meant something else entirely.

Towler is a calm man, thoughtful looking with his salt-and-pepper beard and his deep-set eyes. He’s always had that demeanor, that peaceful vibe. When he was a kid, back in the ’60s, his older half-brother tried to get him to mess with some neighborhood kids in West Cleveland. Ray never would. He wanted to play music or draw. He spent his time at a local park with an easel or a sketchbook. That’s where a young woman on roller skates noticed him a long time ago. It was 1981.

But this is no love story. In fact, the woman on roller skates probably never saw Ray at all. She saw a black man who looked like Ray. And that would be enough to change his life. Because on a sunny day in May of that year, Towler was pulled over for rolling through a stop sign in that park. The cops brought him down to the station because there had been an incident nearby. The cops took Ray’s mug shot. And when the woman on roller skates saw that picture, she thought, “That’s him.”

Days later, police came to the house where Towler lived with his brother, mother and niece. He was cuffed and pushed into the backseat of a patrol car. He was charged with the rape of an 11-year-old girl.

Ray, only 23, couldn’t afford a good lawyer. Nor could he think up a convincing alibi. He didn’t spend much time with anyone other than his family or his girlfriend. He wasn’t with them when the little girl was attacked. So there was nothing he could do. It was his word against that of the woman on roller skates. And why would she lie? What did she have to gain? Ray stood in the courtroom, noticing the judge and the mostly white jury looking angry. Hope drained away and fear crept in. He didn’t have a criminal record and he served in the Army, but the state’s attorney tore him up. “It was like trying to get out of an alligator’s mouth,” he says. When asked by the judge if he had anything to say for himself, he said, “You have the wrong person.” That wasn’t enough.

Ray was going away for life.

They sent him to a maximum security prison across the state in Lucasville, where Ohio’s death-row inmates are housed. Ray’s girlfriend, a percussionist named Jackie, wanted to stay in touch, but Ray knew their relationship wouldn’t make it. He figured none of his relationships would make it. Family members promised to visit, but Lucasville was a long way, and visitation could be canceled for any reason at any time, and it’s so depressing to see loved ones in orange, behind bullet-proof glass. “I was alone,” Ray says. “I would have to do this by myself.” He would spend seven years in max, and receive only four visits.

Friendships didn’t really happen in prison. Why become close with someone who could be dangerous, or someone who will die in front of your eyes eventually, or someone who might be getting out? The feeling in max was always tense, and eventually the Lucasville prison erupted into a deadly riot in 1993. Ray avoided most interaction, spending most of his time drawing or playing the guitar, the sound bouncing off the cement walls. He was only allowed outside the prison grounds once, to attend his mother’s funeral in shackles. “I’m not a big crier,” he says. “But you can’t help it. Late at night, when everyone’s asleep, you let it out.”

The options were few, and the pitfalls were many. “A lot of people were sitting around mad,” he says. “What is their life about? I had to make a decision not to let prison turn me into something ugly.” That drew Towler closer to sports. He was not a huge sports fan as a free man. He liked playing basketball and liked Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson, but he didn’t crave sports the way many of the rest of us do. But on the inside, things were different. “I’m going to tell you how important sports are,” says Robert McClendon, another Ohio native who was imprisoned for a rape he didn’t commit. “No one does time by marking Xs. That’s a bunch of crap. You do time in prison by season: football season, basketball season, baseball season, Olympics, tennis, WNBA. This is how we do time in prison. Prisoners become real big sports fans – I’m talking huge. Cleveland fans even more so.”

Slowly, Ray started marking time with seasons – sports seasons. He moved out of max, into a lower-security prison, in 1987, and he eventually got a small TV. Not many games were on, and newspapers came days late, but he followed Cleveland teams more than ever before. He suffered through Michael Jordan’s shot over Craig Ehlo, though he didn’t see it live and he still thinks Ehlo defended well on the play. And although there were other heartbreaks (The Drive, The Ravens, Craig Counsell, etc.), Ray watched everything. Though all else in his life had withered, sports grew. It was a relationship that got stronger – and one that couldn’t be taken away by an irritable warden. (Actually a lot of wardens love sports also and let prisoners stay up late to watch the end of games.) “Sports were my escape,” Towler says. “It was safe. Nothing bad is going to happen because you’re watching a football game. It’s something you could depend on year after year. It was a big thing.”
Of course nothing could make prison life easy or even bearable, but sports helped the days and years go by. And in this one way, Ray was as able as a free man. If he had never been arrested, he would be watching the games on TV anyway. He was going through something with the Cleveland public – even if that something was constant losing. Yet while free fans counted years since the last title, Towler counted days until the next game. “I’m not a championships guy,” he says. “I just want a contender.” Contending, after all, took up almost as much time as winning titles.

The new millennium came like just another day on the endless calendar, but it brought a little bit of hope for Ray. He spent a lot of time in the library, studying legal issues and getting his associates degree. Then, in 2001, another prisoner he knew, Michael Green, was cleared after 13 years because of DNA testing. If there was evidence held over from Towler’s own case, now more than 20 years closed, surely it would show no trace of his DNA.

Towler wrote to the Innocence Project, a non-profit group dedicated to using DNA evidence to overturn prior convictions. After five more letters, he got a new lawyer. An envelope was recovered from the case – one used to collect fingernails and hair clippings from the attack in 1981. Ray was sure this would be his way out.

But there was nothing inside. Maybe the evidence disintegrated over time. Maybe it was tampered with. Maybe … maybe it didn’t matter. That was it for Ray. He wasn’t getting out at all. “That was the lowest point right there,” he says.

More years passed. Towler kept studying. He drew portraits for other inmates and played guitar. LeBron James became his favorite player, and he made the Cavs one of the best parts of Ray’s daily life.

In 2007, he turned 50.

Midway through the decade, Towler got a new Innocence Project consultant from the University of Cincinnati College of Law named Mark Godsey. He was sure the panties of the raped girl (now nearing middle age) had DNA traces. It was just a matter of waiting until the technology caught up. In 2010, it finally did.

Tests showed none of Towler’s DNA in the girl’s underwear. The courts would have no choice but to overturn. Godsey couldn’t wait to get his client on the phone, especially after listening to Ray’s half-brother burst into tears at the news. But Ray, once again, was calm. His voice hardly raised an octave when he told Godsey: “I already know I’m innocent. When can I get out of here?”

Early in May, as the Cavs started their run toward a title, Towler was back in a courtroom – this time in a sweater. A judge ruled him free, read him an Irish blessing and shed tears with the ruling. Ray grinned and hugged his relatives hard. The Innocence Project believes Towler is one of the longest-held wrongfully imprisoned people in American history.
Godsey and his staff took Towler out for pizza. He sat in the restaurant, looking around at young people the same age he was when he left society. They all held little rectangular devices up to their ears and then in front of their faces. He wondered what they were.

The Cavs found out about Ray’s story and invited him to a game. They gave him a jersey and VIP access to food he wasn’t able to eat for so long. Ray thought of how surreal it seemed: a year before, or 25 years before, no one would have allowed a convicted rapist into the parking lot of an arena. Now he was special – honored. To the media, it seemed perfect: the end of a man’s struggle and the end of his team’s drought.

But Ray knew better than anyone: some waits don’t end; they only change seasons.

Towler hardly slept for weeks after getting out. He was overwhelmed with stimuli, questions, confusion, fear. His first night of freedom was spent at his brother’s house, where the cops had arrested him. That terrified him. He was up all night, staring out the window, wondering if he was safe or if this was some sort of horrible tease. The state of Ohio owed him a hefty sum as compensation – more than $47,000 a year for each year of his incarceration – but it could take years of legal wrangling before he receives any money. But now Towler’s story is out there, along with the knowledge that he is 52, single and technically rich.

His friend, Robert McClendon, who also had a rape conviction overturned after 18 years, warned him about this. “He’s a good man, a gentle soul,” he says. “He has to determine who to trust. He has to know who’s been there from the beginning.” But that’s hard for Ray, since hardly anyone has been there from the beginning. More than a generation has passed. At a July 4 cookout at his brother’s, he mentioned to a guest, “Most of these people are family, but I don’t really know.” Later he confided: “Some Towlers have popped up and they haven’t proven themselves to me.” Towler is using his new BlackBerry to take photos of all the people he encounters, to help him remember who they are. After a month out of prison, he told a friend, “I don’t feel normal. I don’t feel free.”

Then there’s the language gap. It’s not just the technobabble of the times – Facebook, iPad, Twitter – it’s the way Ray has taught himself to see the world. Everyone asks if he’s bitter about the judicial system. They don’t know what to say when he quietly insists: “The judicial system freed me.” He says he forgives the woman on roller skates and his accusers and the jury. He forgives everyone. People wait for some explosion of anger, but it never comes. Wallowing in self-pity and resentment didn’t work in prison, so he’s not going to start now. While everyone in the free world makes decisions based on an assumed payoff in the future, Ray ditched that approach a long time ago.

So he’s a different kind of sports fan. It’s the rest of us who expect the millionaire athletes to act right, work hard and bring home a title – or else. Ray just wants them to play. He didn’t get through 29 years in prison by expecting much from others. No, he didn’t like “The Decision,” but he’s dealt with much worse decisions. “Maybe LeBron isn’t the answer,” he says. “We’ll keep looking.” He pauses.

“Gotta look at reality and deal with it.”

Somewhere inside, Ray Towler does think about what he’s missed. His one-time mentor, Michael Hampton, is now in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He feels he could have been there with him. He thinks about Jackie, his former girlfriend, and wonders where she is now. He never imagined himself approaching 60 years old, working a mailroom job and pausing for an extra second at every stop sign. Things aren’t ideal for Ray. Not even close. But he’s looking forward to the next paycheck, his next jam session and the next season. Both he and his team are starting over from scratch. But that’s OK.

He can wait.


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