All was silent in the sanctuary at the Federated Church in Chagrin last week as former prisoner Nancy Smith paused, mopping her wet eyes with a tissue. “She [the judge] sentenced me 30 to 90 years,” Smith said, telling the story of how a hysteric mother wrongfully accused her, a bus driver, of molesting children.
What would happen to her own four children, who were 18, 15, 14 and 12 years old? In her cell, the divorced mother fell to her knees, asking God, “Help me, help me, what am I gonna do?”
Mrs. Smith and Raymond Towler, who collectively forfeited 44 years of their lives in prison, told their stories of injustice to a gathering of about 60 people June 25 during the Chautauqua-in-Chagrin Ohio Innocence Project event. Pierce Reed, Ohio Innocence Project’s program director for policy, legislation and education, explained that the project’s aim is to release wrongfully convicted people. Based at the University of Cincinnati College of Law, the Innocence Project has used law students to help free 27 men and one woman since 2003. Together, these innocent people spent 525 years in prison. During the event, Mr. Reed sat between Mrs. Smith and Mr. Towler, asking questions, helping them recall their experiences.
For four years, Mrs. Smith drove children to and from school. One day a mother accused her of abusing her child and others. That mother went everywhere, even screamed at the mayor, until Mrs. Smith was arrested in front of her children and escorted to jail, the former bus driver recalled.
The hospital found the children free from any marks. The school attendance records showed the children were in school that day. The lie detector showed Mrs. Smith didn’t lie. The records revealed the bus didn’t deviate from its route. All the children eventually said there was no abuse. Yet, Smith was locked away.
Things looked bleak. Once in prison, the parole board, a “joke,” according to Mrs. Smith, asked her why she wouldn’t take the sex-offender class. “Because I’m not a sex-offender,” she insisted. “Even if it means you coming home?” she recalled the question from the parole board member. “Even if it means me going home,” Mrs. Smith repeated. “I’m not going to take that class, I’m not a sex-offender.” She refused to confess to something she didn’t do, and to please the parole board, you had to express remorse, Mrs. Smith said.
Mrs. Smith said her lawyer eventually heard about the Ohio Innocence Project and wrote them a letter. After a 25-page application, they successfully enlisted the help of the Innocence Project. Four sets of lawyers combed her case, and finally, Mrs. Smith went free.
But she had served 15 years of prison, 15 years of horror, grief and bitterness for a crime she didn’t do. Mrs. Smith remembers one of the girls saying she remembered nothing happening, but she was afraid to talk since she didn’t have money to pay back and couldn’t bear the thought of her mom going to prison.
For years after her release, Mrs. Smith sat at home, unable to bring herself to walk about outside without a companion. Now, Mrs. Smith said she has a job grooming dogs.
Attendee Carla Nazelli said she found Mrs. Smith’s story horrifying. The event was a family affair for Carla, with her sister and mother also attending. Her sister, Alisa Nazelli, said prosecutors should be vetted for honesty to make sure they care most about justice versus winning their cases.
Mr. Reed reminded the audience to not only heed their jury duty, but to also talk with others on this topic.
Alisa Nazelli heeded that advice. “The justice system won’t work without people who are aware and listening on those juries,” she said.
In response to one audience question, Mr. Reed encouraged common sense as a juror. According to Mr. Reed, two good questions to ask are, “What have I heard, and what have I not heard?” While many fight to make sure the lives of the pre-born are valued, and still others fight for the value of the elderly, Mr. Reed said that devaluing life is easy. He told the attendees that about one in 25 people who face the death penalty are innocent, which means that about one or two innocent people in the room would be put to death.
Though the evening could have been dismal, Mr. Towler lightened the somber mood with his humor, sustained despite 29 years in prison. In a video at the beginning of the evening, Mr. Towler told how, once free, he befriended a law student who subsequently asked him to officiate her marriage. “I’m the guy standing in the middle of all their wedding pictures now,” Mr. Towler said.
But things weren’t always so joyful. When Mr. Towler was 24, he was out of the army, playing music, partying and running into drugs. He’d just decided he needed to change his life when two teenagers accused him of rape and assault. But he said he was a “kinda studious guy,” and was at home when the incident occurred. The teenagers picked him out as the perpetrator since he had similar hair to what they remembered. “I got the same hair as 20 million other black people,” Mr. Towler said, sporting his marbled beard and straw hat. “I’m the only black guy in the courtroom so who else do they point at?”
Mr. Towler said he had courage because he knew he was right. He declined to sign the plea deal, so the judge politely told him to go look out the window. Mr. Towler did, and saw Lake Erie. He recalled the judging saying, “If you want to see that sight again, you should sign this paper or you’ll probably never see it again.” Life imprisonment, plus 12-40 years, was the sentence.
Eventually, the Innocence Project, with help from DNA testing and clothes the accuser wore, set Mr. Towler free. “That was a pretty good day,” Mr. Towler said.
Mrs. Smith and Mr. Towler were both artists in prison, and Chagrin Arts recently displayed their work. Mrs. Smith painted to reveal her emotions, and even inmates bought her pieces. She doesn’t paint much now. Mr. Towler performed in prison, pleasing fellow inmates with his music. He also painted. Now, he’s released two albums. Though they both could be bitter, Mrs. Smith and Mr. Towler said they are grateful to God for being free.