SALT LAKE CITY – They were imprisoned for murder or rape. One even endured five trials and suffered 10 years on death row.
Now five musicians who lived a combined 86 years behind bars before being exonerated by DNA and other evidence will join forces to perform at a special fundraiser today for a group working to clear others wrongly accused.
“An all-exoneree band is pretty magical,” said William Dillon, who spent more than 27 years behind bars for a Florida beach murder, until he was exonerated in 2008 through DNA evidence. “We’re not the best at what we do, but I think there’s a lot of power in it. There are a lot of grieving souls, and a lot of people who sought music to soothe the soul, especially when times are really hard.”
The concert at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center in Salt Lake City will benefit the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center.
“It’s not just about some really terrific live music,” said Katie Monroe, director of the center. “It’s about five amazing men and the incredible stories they tell through the power of song.”
The five men have played together twice at conventions, but today will be the first time they’ll play for a public audience.
The men include rocking blues-style harmonica player Darby Tillis, exonerated of murder in 1987 after spending 10 years on death row in Illinois, and bassist-keyboard player Raymond Towler, who spent 28 years in prison in Ohio for a rape he did not commit.
Dillon, a recording artist and country-rock singer-guitarist, spent Friday afternoon writing a new song for the event.
He wrote his first song –”Black Roads and Lawyers”– on toilet paper in his 10-by-8 Florida cell, and has written hundreds since.
He was 20 and cocky when he was arrested in 1981, a surfer accused of beating a man to death, convicted on the strength of testimony from a dog handler.
Music helped him survive behind bars until he was freed in 2008, when post-conviction DNA testing showed his innocence.
Dillon will never forget the day he walked out of prison, light-headed because he wasn’t sure it was truly happening.
In March, he was awarded $1.35 million for his wrongful imprisonment. His only purchase since: a sweet-sounding Martin guitar. “It’s pennies for everything I lost. I have no kids, no family,” said Dillon, 52.
He does have the other exonerees, including Eddie Lowery, who served 10 years of a rape sentence then spent another 12 years trying to prove his innocence and get his name off the sex-offender list – eventually doing so though DNA tests.
Lowery, 52, learned to play the guitar in prison to pass the time.
“For me, it’s a release. It gets my story out,” Lowery said.
The same is true for Tillis.
He is the eldest of the group at age 69 – nearly 25 years removed from his release in 1987 – and sports a white beard and all-black outfit.
He had dreams of opening a blues supper club in Chicago until he was charged with the murder of two men during an armed robbery on the city’s north side.
At his third trial, he was convicted. New evidence led to his release in 1987.
“Many times guys get out and say they’re not angry,” Tillis said. “I said that, but I am angry today because after 25 years, they’re still doing this to people. It’s time to stop. That’s why I keep fighting.”
Tillis wrote, directed and produced a one-man play, “Dead Wrong.” As songwriter, harmonica player and singer, he produced a CD about his death row experience and his life afterward called “Death To Life.”
The fifth musician, Antione Day, is a jamming rock and reggae-style drummer and singer. He spent 10 years in an Illinois prison before being exonerated in 2002 of murder.
He had played drums since he was 7, and started a band in prison.
“This is a unique situation, all of us from different (areas), coming together to make people aware,” said Day, who is a prison outreach coordinator in Chicago.
The Rocky Mountain Innocence Center is a nonprofit founded in 2000 to correct and prevent the conviction of innocent people in Utah, Nevada and Wyoming.
The center’s most recent case involved Debra Brown, who spent 17 years in a Utah prison for the murder of her former boss in Logan. She was the first person to be exonerated under Utah’s non-DNA factual innocence statute, which the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center helped to write and pass in 2008.
Prosecutors are appealing a judge’s ruling that set Brown free last year.