Twenty-eight years and eight months
February 25, 2011 1:54 PM   Subscribe

The Someone You're Not: "Our packed prisons are starting to disgorge hundreds of mostly African-American men who, over the last few decades, we wrongly convicted of violent crimes. This is what it's like to spend nearly thirty years in prison for something you didn't do. This is what it's like to spend nearly thirty years as someone you aren't. And for Ray Towler, this is what it's like to be free." Via.

Single page version

Essay from the author of the profile, Mike Sager, on

Background articles on Mr. Towler, printed after his release, from the Columbus Dispatch and The Daily Beast.

And finally:
Ray Towler was exonerated in Cleveland, Ohio on Wednesday after spending 29 years in prison for a rape he didn’t commit. DNA testing obtained through the collaboration between the Ohio Innocence Project and the Columbus Dispatch proved him innocent. He is the 254th person exonerated by DNA testing in the United States. This was wonderful work by our friend Mark Godsey and his staff and students at the Ohio Innocence Project. Good luck to Mr. Towler as he reintegrates back into society as a free man.
posted by zarq (18 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
Another thing Towler notices is the number of nonwhite faces everywhere. When he gets his job in the mail room at a big health-insurance company downtown, he is pleasantly shocked. There are coworkers of every hue; it almost feels like race doesn't exist in the same way anymore. His immediate supervisor is a big and pretty white lady. He could swear she's kind of flirting with him.

That's another thing: women. It's tripping him out the way they so aggressive today. Before, they would just kind of wait around, and you would make your move, and they would make it known what their answer was. Now they come straight up to him and it's like, "I think we should date, Raymond." Women are more bossy now, too. He is at this art festival with this one gal, and she's telling him, "You need to do this," and "You need to do that." Finally Towler smiles real big and says, "Really? Do I really have to do all of this? Is that, like, an order?"

In restaurants he feels responsible to read every word of the menu. He calls the tortillas "little pancakes." He marvels over this wonderful offering called a western omelet; he thanks the waitress profusely for taking the time to list the ingredients. While he's eating at a chain steakhouse on the outskirts of a mall parking lot, a guy in a suit comes to the table and asks how dinner is going. Ray wonders politely who he is to be asking ... and is flattered to learn he is the manager of the entire place! When his favorite lawyer comes to town — she was on the conference call in the sergeant's office — he tries to take her to a nice Mexican restaurant to show his gratitude but ends up taking her to a taco stand by mistake.

Wherever he goes, everything is computerized. The gas station, the convenience store, the hardware store: Swipe this, enter that code, do it yourself. Automated supermarket checkout? You wonder why people are crying about needing jobs. It used to be anybody could get a job in a grocery store, from teenagers on up. Likewise cars: He used to be able to fix anything. Now he'd have to go to school all over again to learn fuel injection and the other computer-driven stuff.

So many choices. Which car insurance. Which cereal. Which deodorant, toothpaste, toothbrush, soap, shampoo. Rows and rows of products. Varieties, sizes, colors. Which is cheaper? Which is better? What's the best buy? Which gum to chew? When he went into prison there were, like, two kinds of chewing gum. Now there are a zillion. One of the small gifts he gives himself is trying all the gums. "I can spoil myself a little so long as I stay within my means," he says. Papaya juice! Kiwi and strawberry nectar! Green tea! Arnold Palmer — he was a golfer when Towler went down. Now he is a drink, sweet and so incredibly thirst quenching.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 2:07 PM on February 25, 2011 [10 favorites]

I chose not to put these links in the main body of the post, but Mr. Towler was freed in part because of an exposé by the Columbus Dispatch. In 2008, they conducted a year-long investigation into the Ohio justice system's process for testing DNA to uncover wrongful convictions.
"Police and courts regularly destroy evidence. Prosecutors, benefiting from a flawed law, routinely oppose DNA testing. Judges dismiss inmate requests without a reason, as required by law.
The section is called "Test of Convictions." Mr. Towler's case profile from the investigation can be found here.
posted by zarq at 2:11 PM on February 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

I must be getting really old. I can not stand the slang stuff in here: "moms" , "they so aggressive".
posted by spicynuts at 2:12 PM on February 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

That was a harrowing story. He's a better man than I am; I'd have been sorely tempted by revenge.
posted by jaduncan at 2:12 PM on February 25, 2011

I must be getting really old. I can not stand the slang stuff in here: "moms" , "they so aggressive".

In fairness, the man has just spent quite a long time in prision.
posted by jaduncan at 2:13 PM on February 25, 2011

It's not written in quotes. It's written by the author. I wouldn't mind if it was a direct quote. See? I'm old.
posted by spicynuts at 2:15 PM on February 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

I really liked the article. A lot of stories like this, about people freed from prison after a long time, focus on the legal fight to free them first and the actual person being freed second. This had the balance the other way, and I really appreciated it.
posted by MadamM at 2:36 PM on February 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

Words are not adequate.
posted by localroger at 4:02 PM on February 25, 2011

254 men freed and how many others denied the process to cover up lost evidence? What a sham the justice system is, especially for black men. I hope he managed a really juicy settlement, not that it would make up for 3 decades.
posted by Meatbomb at 4:08 PM on February 25, 2011

His lawyer drives home the point that Towler — now, for a long time, and in the photo taken of him that day — has a full beard, not a stubble, as described by the victims.

I hope that fact gets him a very, very large settlement. It proves they knew at the time he couldn't have been the perpetrator. There was no reason to wait decades for a DNA test. They knew and just didn't care. So long as they caught someone and he was black.
posted by marsha56 at 4:14 PM on February 25, 2011 [9 favorites]

It's not written in quotes. It's written by the author. I wouldn't mind if it was a direct quote. See? I'm old.

I'm not old, and it bothered me, too. I definitely did a double-take on each of those, and I came back here to complain about that specifically. Maybe I'm just carrying around some sort of politically correct baggage, or maybe it sticks out to me more because I work as an editor, but every instance of dialect as a device here took me straight out of the story. It just sounded wrong amid the otherwise "straight" writing, like the writer was appropriating too much, or claiming or presuming more than he should, or trying to be cool or overly authentic. It makes it all about the writer, screaming, "Look at me, I'm slyly using dialect to immerse you in the story!" I was disappointed to see such a well-known investigative journalist fall back on that device, like, "Hey, I get it, I can speak this guy's soul."

In the phrase that appears in the passage Brandon Blatcher quotes above—"It's tripping him out the way they so aggressive today"—the "It's tripping him out" part would've worked to impart the flavor the writer wanted, had it not been followed by "they so aggressive." All he had to do was write "they're" and I wouldn't have read it and thought, "Is that a typo? Wait—is that dialect?!"

Not that the AP Stylebook is the right book to consult when you're going for powerful, lyrical writing, but this is its take on dialect:

"Dialect should be avoided, even in quoted matter, unless it is clearly pertinent to a story. There are some words and phrases in everyone's vocabulary that are typical of a particular region or group. Quoting dialect, unless used carefully, implies substandard or illiterate usage."

Again, maybe I'm just overly cautious; maybe Mike Sager's wilingness to inject dialect where he thinks it's needed is part of what makes him a great investigative reporter. But it still felt really gimmicky to me.

Apart from that, great story, though.
posted by limeonaire at 5:06 PM on February 25, 2011 [7 favorites]

I was actually somewhat surprised (and pleasantly, mind) that he'll be guaranteed $40k+/year of wrongful incarceration. Somehow, in my dim view of the American legal system, I'd just assumed the courts would throw up their hands, say "oops," and leave you to sue for any compensation. So there's that, whatever it's worth.
posted by wreckingball at 5:20 PM on February 25, 2011 [4 favorites]

Oh, and I also found the use of AAVE in the piece—Sager certainly appears to be a middle-aged white dude—distracting and vaguely problematic. But you know, an important account questionably-told is better that letting it go unwritten.
posted by wreckingball at 5:23 PM on February 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Hmm. As a professional word nerd myself, the intentional use of slang didn't bug me for some reason. Normally it would (this is coming from someone who even proofreads his casual text messages before they go out). Gimmicky? Perhaps. Sager was clearly trying to lightly frame this story from the perspective of the subject, Ray Towler. Whether or not that was a good idea seems to be beside the point to me right now. The piece ultimately did what I think Sager intended it to do: move a reader to a point of contemplation. I misted up, regardless of any ill-informed uses of questionable grammar tactics.

I'm more curious about the missing characters in this story. Think about the little girl who was raped. Not only is her assailant is still on the loose, but the wrong man paid for the crime. It would be interesting to see how she felt about this. It's a miscarriage of justice from all angles.
posted by shiggins at 6:05 PM on February 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Not only is her assailant is still on the loose...

Coming from SUCH a grammarian. Hah.
posted by shiggins at 6:09 PM on February 25, 2011

Wow, I thought it was well written, powerful and compelling. The use of slang didn't stand out because it was empathetic, I thought. It was not condescending or showy— to me, that's when use of that kind of language is problematic.
posted by Maias at 7:01 AM on February 26, 2011

Maybe I've been sheltered (or watched too many Jerry Bruckheimer shows), but I always thought it was super-rare nowadays for someone in prison to have been wrongly convicted.

Come to think of it, all those shows have at least one episode where a man was wrongly convicted, so... well, never mind. Consider my eyes opened.
posted by tamagogirl at 9:58 AM on February 26, 2011

I just saw this today, by way of Hacker News, and like all such stories this just serves to bolster my certainty that the death penalty can never be justified; I don't hold that nobody ever deserves to die, nor do I hold that it is never right to kill, but the standard must be set so high that there is not any doubt of guilt. Given that perfect certainty is essentially impossible, and given that executing an innocent man would be flat-out murder, the death penalty can never be justified.

I know that he wasn't given the death penalty, but the case had all of the hallmarks of a lynching at the hands of the court.
posted by ChrisR at 8:01 AM on February 27, 2011

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