For a Crime He Didn't Commit
GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:
We're going to kick off today's SNAP JUDGMENT episode with a story about an escape plan that we did not see coming. This story does make mention of a horrendous crime, and as such, listener discretion is advised. Our own Joe Rosenberg has the story. SNAP JUDGMENT.
JOE ROSENBERG, BYLINE: Eddie Lowery was a 22-year-old corporal in the U.S. Army living off-post at base in Kansas in 1981, when on a Saturday night, he left a party to go get some cigarettes.
EDDIE LOWERY: And on my way back, I hit a parked car off the side of the road. It was a, you know, a black car and I ran right into the back of it.
ROSENBERG: Eddie split open his chin in the accident. He didn't make much of it at the time, but then he got a call from the Riley, Kan. police department, asking him if he could come in and answer some questions about that night.
LOWERY: And so, the two detectives took me into this room, put a table between me and them. And they eventually said, well, do you know why we have you in here? And, you know, I thought it was because of the car accident. And they said that we're investigating a rape.
ROSENBERG: The victim was an elderly woman who lived near where he had crashed. They didn't tell him her name. But the two detectives seemed polite, so he just told them his whereabouts that night, and they wished him well.
LOWERY: But only one of the detectives took me back to my trailer on the way back, and he just asked me for the clothes that I had on that night and if he could go through my car. And I said yes, and I just stood there while he went through my trailer because I had nothing to hide. But he did bag up my shirt and my pants, and my shirt and pants had blood on them because of my car accident and where I had cracked my chin open.
ROSENBERG: That's when the detective asked Eddie if he could come back the next day and take a polygraph test. And since Eddie really didn't have anything to hide, he agreed.
LOWERY: And the polygraph tester, he goes, this polygraph test works really well on you. I was like, OK great. And so he began asking me questions. Did I know the victim? Did I rape the victim? You know, did I hit her with a lamp? Did I use a knife? Of course I was saying no, I didn't hit her with a lamp, I didn't use a knife, I didn't do the rape, you know, I didn't commit the rape. And so, by the time it was over with he just looked down at his testing and did some marks on the paper, and looked up at me and told me I was lying.
ROSENBERG: Then he said that if there was anything Eddie wanted to tell him, now would be the time.
LOWERY: I said, there's nothing to tell you. I just told you - I just answered truthfully everything that happened to me, and your machine's wrong. And he goes, no, I know you did something. This machine is telling me the truth. And I was stunned. And that's when I started getting scared. And he goes, well, I'm going to offer you one more chance before I go get them. And I said, I'm telling you the truth, I didn't commit this crime. He went and got the two detectives again, and the more aggressive detective started pointing his fingers at me and telling me that, you know, I have you now, I know you committed this crime, and started slamming his hands - his fists down on the table and pointing his fingers in my face and telling me that there is something mentally wrong with me. And that's when I looked up and I said, I want a lawyer and he told me that I didn't need a lawyer right now. Then I said well, then I want to call my company commander. He wouldn't let me call my company commander and he continued to yell at me and accuse me of this rape. I was interrogated around, I guess, seven and a half hours. I wasn't offered any food or anything to drink. I was just stuck there with no breaks, either both of them in there at the same time or one at a time. One would leave, one would stay, then they would switch. And I just kept telling them and telling them and telling them that I didn't have anything to do with this crime. And then they started bringing up family matters, you know, to wear me down more - like the rape of my sister and the death of my brother, until I had my head on the desk, I was crying and I wasn't going to get out of that room until they had what they wanted.
ROSENBERG: This is when Eddie decided to do something that is actually pretty common in situations like this. He decided to lie.
LOWERY: And at the very end, I felt that my avenue was to tell them what they wanted to hear so I could get out and then prove my innocence after I got a lawyer because there was going no fingerprints, no blood, nothing there. She wasn't going to be able to identify me because I didn't do it.
ROSENBERG: That still left the problem - how to confess to a crime he didn't actually know the details of.
LOWERY: They asked me how did I get into the place? I just thought of something I saw on a John Wayne movie. I said, I just went up to it and I kicked the door open. And he said, well, didn't you cut the screen and pop the latch on the screen, go in the house? And I was thinking to myself, well, that's probably how it happened. So I said yeah, that's what I did. He said, what'd you do when you got inside? And I didn't know what to say. So they said, did you go into any rooms? I wouldn't say anything. He said, did you go into the kitchen? He goes, did you pick up a knife? I said, yeah, that's what I did - I went into the kitchen and picked up a knife. He goes, then what'd you do? And I said - I just wanted it over with, so - I just said, I raped her. And he goes, no, no, no - what'd you do before that? Did you look around? And I was just agreeing to everything they said and when I chose the wrong answer, they would supply me with the right answer. But even though they had the ability to record at that time, they didn't record it. And at the very end of the interrogation, they asked me if I wanted to, you know, write down a confession. And I said no and they laughed, and they said OK. And I was arrested and then processed and booked into the county jail. And I've never seen the outside world as a free man again.
ROSENBERG: At the trial, Eddie's public defender didn't have much to go on. True, his fingerprints weren't at the crime scene, but the victim hadn't gotten a good look at her attacker. And this was before DNA evidence. So all the jury knew was that Eddie's blood type matched that of the assailant, that he was recently separated from his wife and daughter, so he had no alibi, and that they had the testimony of two police officers who swore Eddie had confessed calmly and of his own free will. It was their word against his. The jury found him guilty of aggravated burglary, aggravated assault and of the rape.
LOWERY: I was speechless. The judge asked me if I had anything to say. And what could I say, you know, I didn't do it - again? So I just shook my head and when it came to sentencing a couple weeks later, they sentenced me to 13 to life. I thought I would die in prison because while I was in the county jail after my sentencing, I had a friend tell me, he goes, if you tell anybody in there, one person, you're a sex offender, life's going to be really rough for you in there. Someone's having a bad day, they'll look for a sex offender. They get, you know, they get jumped, they get beat up, maybe stabbed. The word is they get punked, which basically means, you know, they get turned into somebody's woman. I wasn't a very big guy and I just thought about that over and over. And so when I got to prison and they started asking me - when the inmates began to ask me what I was in there for, I told them I was in there for robbery.
ROSENBERG: The irony of course, wasn't lost on Eddie - that he was lying about a conviction that he'd only gotten because he had lied in the first place. And it did protect him, but only from people on the inside. Everyone on the outside knew what he was in for. Shortly after he got there, he received a letter from his ex-wife containing a photo of his 5-year-old daughter.
LOWERY: And it said that this is the last picture I'll ever send to you, this is the last letter I'll ever send to you. And, you know, I don't want to hear from you again. And she kept true to those words the whole time I was in prison. I never got another picture of my daughter, I never heard from my daughter. I never heard from her. But on my daughter's birthdays and Christmas time, I would have somebody in prison who worked leather or did some kind of artwork, and I would have something made up and I would send that to my daughter. But I didn't know if she was getting them or not.
ROSENBERG: Meanwhile, Eddie was trying to exonerate himself, mainly by looking into something that hadn't been around at the time of his trial - DNA testing.
LOWERY: And I said, this DNA that they're talking about, this new DNA thing that they're talking about, could help me. I knew that there was blood on the sheets and blood on her nightgown, and of course the most important thing, you know, was the rape kit. If I could find that evidence and get a DNA test, I knew I could prove my innocence.
ROSENBERG: But that was proving really hard. Remember, this was the 1980s. There was no Internet to turn to, no Innocence Project. Those things didn't exist yet. So after his court-appointed attorney lost his appeal, Eddie was never able to find another lawyer who was willing to represent him. In a situation like this, most guys would turn to other inmates for help with their case, so-called jailhouse lawyers. But Eddie couldn't do that because that would mean revealing what he was in for. All that left was the parole board, and you can guess how that went.
LOWERY: You've heard the saying that we're all innocent in prison? Well, I went to the parole board and I told them I didn't commit the crime. And they say well, you pleaded guilty. And I said, I didn't plead guilty, I pleaded not guilty. They say, well, you confessed to the crime. I said yes, but, I go, it was a false confession, I just told them what they wanted to hear. And I didn't want to have to go through that again. I didn't want to have to sit there and confess to something I didn't do.
ROSENBERG: So, it was almost like a re-do, like, you could do the right thing this time around?
LOWERY: Oh, yeah. If nothing else, it just felt good inside myself to tell the truth. But I could tell by the way they were looking at me and just the next questions, you know, they were just kind of getting through some time. And then when I got the results back, it would say, parole board has passed you for not accepting responsibility for your crime. And with a life sentence, I knew that I wasn't - I wasn't going to get out.
ROSENBERG: It was the ultimate catch-22. Eddie needed to prove his innocence to get out of prison, but he needed to get out of prison in order to prove his innocence. So it was perhaps symbolic when, two years after his second failed parole hearing, he found himself running in circles around a track in the yard.
LOWERY: And I was just out running by myself around the track. And when you do that, you know, you think about a lot of things. And just right there at that moment, I had been eight years into my sentence and it just got me thinking even more about my daughter and my mom and dad, and how much time I've missed. And I was just kind of, I guess talking to God, and I was like, God, you know I didn't commit this crime. You know, I don't understand why I'm here, but I need to get out of here. And right there at that moment, you know, it was like a light bulb just came on. Everybody knows when you go to the parole board that have to admit to the crime in order to get out. There is no not accepting responsibility 'cause everybody knows they're not going to let you if you do that.
ROSENBERG: The trick, Eddie realized, wasn't proving that he was innocent - it was proving that he was guilty because the guilty man could be rehabilitated, and the rehabilitated man could be released.
LOWERY: I didn't believe the words would ever have to come out of my mouth again, but I was going to have to go to the parole board and, you know, suck up the humiliation, everything I felt, my pride and all of this, and confess to something I didn't do. Take responsibility for something I didn't do and be remorseful for something I didn't do, in order to get out.
ROSENBERG: In other words, Eddie Lowery was about to falsely confess to rape, again.
LOWERY: Because that was the only way that I was ever going to get out of prison in order to fight my case. There is no other way.
ROSENBERG: Did you tell anyone about this? Like, your parents, your friends, anyone?
LOWERY: No. I didn't tell anybody anything. I just did what I needed to do.
ROSENBERG: But there was a problem. In order to demonstrate remorse and sell the idea to the parole board that he was rehabilitated, Eddie would have to take a sex offenders course.
LOWERY: I just knew as soon as I went back into those walls that those guys in there that knew me were going to see me walking over to the sex offenders course. And when I saw them, I was trying to hide my face in the crowd of men I was walking with so they wouldn't see me. And my heart was beating a million miles an hour. I didn't know - I just had to do it, you know? And as I walked, that's when I found out they had AA to the left and sex offenders to the right. So when I was going down that sidewalk and I got out of their view, they thought I was going to AA. On the very first day that we had group therapy in the course, I'm sitting there in group and I'm thinking to myself, when, you know, when should I come out and say this? When should I do this? Some guys take months in order to come forward and say things. And then eventually after a couple of guys, two or three guys, said they didn't want to say anything, it got over to me. And I - it was just like, I just kind of let it pour out of me.
ROSENBERG: Let what pour out of you? What did you tell them?
LOWERY: That I went to this lady's house, I pulled up her gown and raped her. And I had to sit there and say that in front of a group of men, and then I had to sit there and listen to feedback from these inmates who were also sex offenders. And there was really only one counselor that I always saw. There was one counselor per group. So she would say, you know, I'm really impressed that you could sit in there and open up to these men like that. And show that, you know, you're remorseful for what happened and just be honest because I think it helps them understand that, you know, that they can be open in group. I was thinking, you know, I'm glad, you know, you think all this, but I didn't care if those guys opened up or not. All I cared about was getting that certificate, completing this program and doing what I needed to do in order to get out of prison.
ROSENBERG: Were you worried that you wouldn't be able to put on the act, like, you wouldn't be a good enough actor for this?
LOWERY: No because I think in the very first time that I did this, it was probably the easiest time for me to kind of, you know, get - build up the tears in my eyes and be honest because otherwise, somebody would've seen through it that, you know, I wasn't being truthful.
ROSENBERG: That's even so weird though, that even as you're saying that to me, like, even now you just used the word honest because you said if not - I had to be honest because if not, someone would've seen through it. But that's already you taking on the character of this person...
LOWERY: I had to become that rapist in order to get out.
ROSENBERG: How long did you have to do that for?
LOWERY: It was a year. I had to sit there, I had to go through this course for a year. I lived a lie in there, you know? I lied to get in prison and I'd had to lie to get out of prison.
ROSENBERG: So when the year was up, Eddie prepared to stand in front of the parole board one more time.
LOWERY: And by then, I've completed so many programs - you know, biofeedback programs, AA programs, sex offenders programs, any kind I could get my hands on, I was already doing. Plus, I had my counselor. She said she was going to sit next to me. And so when they looked at me, they just looked at all my work that I had done. And that was the only time that I went and seen them that they didn't actually ask me if I was guilty. Thirty days after the parole board, the unit team guy, the counselor, he called me in and he hands me the results and he says, you made parole. I couldn't believe it. I was out.
ROSENBERG: After he was released, Eddie reunited with his daughter. And he was now able to do what he couldn't from inside prison. The process would take another decade, but he found a lawyer, got in touch with the Innocence Project - which now did exist - and finally filed a motion for an evidence search for that clothing with the DNA that could prove his innocence.
LOWERY: And when they told me that they found that evidence, that was the first time that I just felt this weight lift off my shoulders. And I fell down on my hands and knees, you know, and I just started crying because holding back tears is hard. Holding back the emotions of what I went through is really, really difficult for me. It was such a devastating part of my life, trying to get through - trying to get myself out of a situation that I got myself into. I mean, today, even today it hurts. Right now it hurts that I went through all this and I was labeled a sex offender, when I know there's nothing in my life, nothing in my soul, would ever want to ever do anything like this.
ROSENBERG: Eddie's exoneration hearing took place at the same courthouse where he had been convicted 21 years before. The judge not only reversed the original ruling, but expunged his entire record. No one would ever have to know that he was convicted or even accused of anything. The man who had lied to get to the truth would never need to lie again. But that doesn't mean he's let down his guard.
LOWERY: I'll tell you what habits are still with me. The habits that are still with me are, I collect my receipts to show my whereabouts, if I'm in a McDonald's or any restaurant and a little kid walks in there, I'll walk out, and, I try not to put myself in a situation that's going to jeopardize my freedom. I don't know if it's rational, but I'll never forget the past because my prison number was 37839. I know it like my Social Security number. And I feel like I'm as free as I'm going to be.
WASHINGTON: Thanks to DNA testing, the real perpetrator was finally found in 2002. It turns out he was being questioned in the police station at the same time as Eddie, but had been let go. Special thanks to the Innocence Project and our friends at KVCR in Riverside, Calif. for their help with this story. Eddie Lowery is now writing and performing music here in his home state of California and we'll have a link to his world on our website, snapjudgment.org. That story was produced by Joe Rosenberg, with sound design by Renzo Gorrio.
WASHINGTON: When SNAP JUDGMENT continues, the future of the world is determined in a suburban kitchen and a date goes wrong before it goes right, when SNAP JUDGMENT, the "Proof" episode returns. Stay tuned.
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