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Once wrongly imprisoned, musicians will be 'Jammin' for Justice' in Utah

Published June 8, 2012 2:53 pm

Benefit • Concert will raise money for Rocky Mountain Innocence Center.
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Call it "Out of Jailhouse Rock."

Five musicians who were sent to prison for crimes they didn't commit — later exonerated and freed — will perform together at a Sunday benefit concert in Salt Lake City.

Produced by local musician Kate MacLeod, the unusual fundraiser will benefit the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center, a local nonprofit organization working to correct and prevent the wrongful conviction of innocent people in Utah, Nevada and Wyoming.

"Despite the challenges of the years taken from these musicians by a system, their spirits prevailed, and the music takes on an urgency that makes their performances especially vital," MacLeod said. "Their musicianship often exceeds the quality of more famous touring musicians, taking the audience by surprise and creating a positive synergy, a clear result of the depth of their experiences and the joy at being able to perform together. They really do have something special to share with an audience."

Antoine Day, William Anton, Eddie Lowery, Darby Tillis and Raymond Towler are from Illinois, Ohio, North Carolina and Missouri. Before their prison stints, Day and Towler aspired to be professional musicians. In contrast, Lowry began learning the guitar in prison. The five men have played together twice at conventions, but the Salt Lake City concert is the first time they'll play for a public audience.

"This is not fluff," MacLeod said. "It is humanitarian art in its most vital form.."

Antoine Day, drummer • Spent 10 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit, then waited nine more years after his exoneration to be released.

William Dillon, guitar • Freed from prison after 27 years in 2008 when post-conviction DNA testing demonstrated his innocence of a 1981 murder.

Eddie Lowery, bass • Convicted of rape, aggravated burglary and aggravated battery, he was sentenced to 11 years to life in prison. After serving nine years, he was released on parole and was able to procure DNA testing on the biological evidence in 2002. DNA test results confirmed Lowery's claim of innocence.

Darby Tillis, harmonica and singer • Sentenced to death for a murder in 1977 in Illinois, he was one of the first death-row prisoners to be exonerated. New evidence led to his release in 1987, including evidence showing that the prosecution paid the only witness, despite no evidence tying Tillis to the murder.

Raymond Towler, guitar • Freed after 29 years in prison for a rape he didn't commit. DNA tests proved his innocence in 2010.

The concert will be especially poignant for Katie Monroe, head of the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center. Monroe's mother was sentenced to 22 years in prison after a 1992 incident in which she found her longtime companion dead in his Virginia home, a bullet in his head, a pistol by his side.

Monroe quit her job and spent the next six years searching for proof of her mother's innocence, and in 1999 discovered that prosecutors had withheld evidence showing that the likely cause of Roger de la Burde's death was suicide, not murder. Seven years after her conviction, Beverly Monroe was released.

Monroe, whose son has Mac­Leod as a violin teacher, first saw the men perform last year in Cincinnati at a national conference. "I was moved by the talent," she said.

Monroe continues to be motivated by knowing that wrongful convictions can happen to anyone. The Rocky Mountain Innocence Center receives about 200 requests a year from families and inmates hoping to prove their innocence.

Monroe enlisted MacLeod to work with the musicians for the fundraiser, knowing she was passionate about the cause. MacLeod had once written a song a man who had been hanged in the 19th century, only to be found innocent decades later.

"I wrote a song upon request by the descendants of Thomas Egan in South Dakota," MacLeod said, adding that Egan was the first capital-punishment case in the Dakota territory in the 1800s. "He was hanged, later to be exonerated posthumously, due to a deathbed confession by a relative, which then made the conviction questionable and probably wrongful. The town erected a statue in his honor. That story is a small piece of American history, but also a reminder of how unclear and difficult it can actually be to uncover the whole truth."

MacLeod said she has been inspired by the way the men express little rancor. "They spent all of the years in prison that most people would spend working on a career," she said, adding that Towler and Day lost out on the opportunity to pursue music due to their prison sentences. "In this performance configuration, they get to express their talent with musicians who share a common history, and together they are capable of incredibly moving performances."

Towler picked up the guitar when he was 12, and it became a constant companion when he was 24 and sent to prison, although he didn't play the blues. "I tried to use the guitar to not be frustrated," he said. "I would try to play uplifting notes to make me feel better and believe in my future."

During three decades in prison, music provided a glimpse of another life. "Music was an escape, a source of freedom," he said. "It kept me sane. I would just close my eyes and go anywhere I wanted."

Because of geographical distance, the musicians have only performed together twice before, but because of their background they share an unusual camaraderie. "We kind of clicked," Towler said. "We could relate to one another. We all have a common history."

He paused, then added: "We all have a good life ahead of us."

dburger@sltrib.com

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Jammin' for Justice

This concert is a fundraiser for the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center, a nonprofit founded in 2000 to correct and prevent the conviction of innocent people in Utah, Nevada and Wyoming. The center examines DNA and non-DNA cases. In 2004, the center's work helped secure the DNA exoneration of Bruce Goodman, who served 18 years in prison for a rape and murder he didn't commit. In May 2011, the center's work led to the exoneration of Debra Brown, who spent 17 years in prison for murder she didn't commit. Brown 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.

When • Sunday, June 10, at 7 p.m.

Where • Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center's Jeanné Wagner Theater, 138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City.

Tickets • $40 for general admission; $30 for students; $75 VIP tickets include a pre-concert party at Squatters at 5:30 p.m. and access to reserved seating; at http://www.ArtTix.org or 801-355-2787.