The Exoneree Band Is Free to Rock, and Rightly So

From: The New York Times

CLEVELAND — A few hours before William Michael Dillon and his bandmates took the stage for their headline gig at the House of Blues here last week, this singer and guitarist took a moment to listen to his own grim ballad, “Black Robes and Lawyers.” A self-taught musician, Mr. Dillon wrote the tune in 1985 on strips of prison toilet paper while serving nearly 30 years for a murder he didn’t commit. Sitting now in his lake-view room in a boutique hotel, he softly sang along with the recording, lost in a fog of distance.

“All I ever wanted was for somebody to hear me,” he gently said when the track came to an end. “The truth is, you could hear my story and forget it two days later. But hopefully you won’t forget the music.”

Mr. Dillon’s music — taut, piercing and haunted by his memories of the cellblock — was the driving force of the show on Thursday night by an unusual ensemble, the Exoneree Band, a touring group of prisoners-turned-musicians, each of whom was wrongfully convicted of another person’s crime. Collectively, the band’s five members spent more than a century as unjust captives of the state. Imagine the inmates at San Quentin getting up to play for Johnny Cash, but with the sickening twist that none of them should have been there to begin with.

“We do our music and share our stories basically to stay sane,” said the bassist, Eddie Lowery, a former soldier who in 1982 was locked up for almost a decade for a rape in Kansas that someone else committed. “Each of us comes from somewhere different culturally and musically, but we all do songs that talk about what happened in our lives.”

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As exonerations of the wrongfully convicted have steadily increased in courts across the country — last year, experts say, there was a record number, 149 — so, too, has their presence in the larger media culture. Whether it means TV shows like “The Night Of” or documentary films like “The Central Park Five,” journalists and artists are paying more attention now than ever to men like Mr. Lowery and their lives.

But what there hasn’t been, at least until this moment, is a rock band devoted to making music from these juridical disasters, which, with their narratives of injustice and redemption, seem to be especially apt for song. While different in their details, each of the bandmates’ stories is an American tragedy that could have been penned by Bruce Springsteen after a night of reading Kafka. In 1981, when he was only 20, Mr. Dillon, for example, pulled into the parking lot of a beach in Central Florida to smoke a joint with his brother, unaware that five days earlier someone had been murdered there. The police approached and questioned him, and four witnesses eventually — and incorrectly — fingered him as the killer. He was tried, convicted and imprisoned, then wasexonerated and released in 2008 after serving 27 years of a life sentence.

Much like combat, unjust incarceration is hard to grasp unless you go through it yourself. And one of the joys of being in the band, its members said, was finding others who not only shared a similar ordeal but who were also seeking healing through their music. “We don’t have to talk about what happened when we’re together,” said Ted Bradford, the rhythm guitarist, who served 10 years in Washington State for a rape he didn’t commit. “It’s like being in a brotherhood. We all just sort of know.”

The idea for the Exonerees first emerged in 2009 at a gathering in Houston hosted by the Innocence Project, a national advocacy group for the wrongfully convicted. After the day’s events, a lawyer, Katie Monroe, found herself at a hotel roof bar having drinks with some former inmates who were having trouble sleeping. “It was 2 or 3 in the morning,” Ms. Monroe recalled, “and next thing you know, the guys started doing this full-blown, harmonized version of ‘Stand by Me.’ I was so moved and struck by how talented they were, I wanted to pursue something formal.”

So in 2010, she said, she and the fiddlerKate MacLeod, who had also worked with the wrongfully convicted, asked the Innocence Project to help them find exonerees with musical inclinations. They discovered Mr. Dillon, who was at that point living free in Southern California and had recently recorded a CD with the Grammy-winning producer Jim Tulio. Not long after, they tracked down other members for the band: Mr. Lowery;Raymond Towler, the lead guitarist, who did 29 years in prison on a murder charge in Cleveland; the drummer,Antoine Day, a Chicago R&B man who served 10 years for murder; andDarby Tillis, a harmonicist and death-row inmate, also from Chicago, who spent nine years in prison (he died of natural causes after his release and was replaced by Mr. Bradford).

The Exonerees’ first show was in 2011, when they performed in Cincinnati for an Innocence Project conference. Since then, they have mostly played the wrongful-conviction circuit, playing gigs at TedX Talks or in hotel ballrooms for bar associations. But Mr. Tulio has big plans for the group: He has been searching for an angel investor to fund a full-scale musical — in the vein, he said, of “Hamilton” — that would feature the musicians and their stories in a multimedia theatrical production.

Before that happens, though, the band may need a bit more time to polish its act; it rarely practices because its members are spread across the country and most have other jobs. The show last week in Cleveland, a fund-raiser for the Ohio Innocence Project, was a welcome, if uncommon, opportunity to jam. They shared the billing with a pair of opening acts: Faith & Whiskeyand the No Name Band, both composed of judges and lawyers.

That led to a strange, cerebral sound check in which, between testing mikes and speakers, the conversation turned to topics like exculpatory evidence and the need to record police interrogations. “These guys’ stories are amazing,” said Michael Donnelly, a Cuyahoga County common pleas judge and the singer for Faith & Whiskey. “Beyond their music, which is pretty good, they make me, as an officer of the court, want to fix the system.”

When they finally took the stage, the Exonerees began their set with “Black Robes and Lawyers.” The song commenced, as always, with Mr. Dillon’s blunt, ironic introduction. It said everything that needed to be said.

“My name,” he told the crowd to loud applause, “is William Michael Dillon. I was arrested for murder on August 25, 1981, for a crime I didn’t commit. I was released on November 18, 2008.”

Then he strummed a chord and took a pause.

“Thank you,” he went on, “to the keepers of justice.”

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