The judge who set Ray Towler free tearfully wished him well with an Irish blessing.
His attorneys handed him $1,500 in credit cards to buy whatever he needed.
The media gave him more than ample opportunity to spew venom at a justice system that locked him away for nearly 29 years for a rape he didn't commit.
But all Towler really wanted yesterday, on his first day of freedom, was to eat big slices of gooey pizza and hug a small group of family and friends.
"I know some people might expect me to feel bitter about this, but I feel blessed, truly blessed, to have this chance at life," said the 52-year-old Cleveland native between bites of cheese, pepperoni, sausage and green peppers. "I just wanted the sun to come up this morning, and it did. And it was nice to walk in the sunshine outside the prison walls."
The soft-spoken Towler, who was proved innocent by DNA testing, was declared a free man yesterday in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court by Judge Eileen A. Gallagher and officially released from the Grafton Correctional Institution.
Towler, wearing a neat black sweater and slacks instead of his tan prison uniform, didn't stop beaming from the time he entered the courtroom.
At the end of the 10-minute hearing, Gallagher cried as she read the blessing to Towler:
May the road rise up to meet you. May the wind always be at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face, and rains fall soft upon your fields. And may God hold you in the palm of His hand now and forever.
She then stepped around the bench to shake Towler's hand and was greeted with nothing but smiles from the wrongly convicted man.
"Mr. Towler, you are free to go," the judge said.
Only a handful of the 253 men who have been exonerated nationally by DNA testing have served more time than Towler. Along with Columbus natives Robert McClendon and Joseph Fears Jr., Towler is the third man to be proved innocent in connection with a Dispatchinvestigation, "Test of Convictions."
The series, published in 2008 and available online at Dispatch.com/dna, exposed holes in the DNA testing system, helped spur testing for inmates such as Towler and led state lawmakers to pass sweeping legislation aimed at preventing more wrongful convictions.
"There have been many attorneys that have spoken up for Mr. Towler, but today, DNA testing spoke the loudest," said Towler's attorney, Carrie Wood, of the Ohio Innocence Project. "It speaks without bias."
Towler was serving 12 years to life for rape, felonious assault and kidnapping for an abduction on May 24, 1981. The victims, a 12-year-old girl and 13-year-old boy, said a man lured them into the woods at the Rocky River Reservation in Cuyahoga County. The victims could not be reached for comment. DNA testing proved that semen found in the girl's underwear didn't match Towler.
It didn't take Towler long to realize that the world has changed since he last walked free. He looked around the restaurant and saw almost everyone on a cell phone. There were no cell phones when Towler went to prison. They were invented in 1983.
There were no fax machines (1988), DVDs (1995), or World Wide Web (1989).
Towler hasn't been eligible to vote since 1980, when Ronald Reagan became the 40th president.
In sports, Gloria James was three years from giving birth to one of Towler's sports heroes, Cleveland Cavalier LeBron James.
He's never been to Cleveland Browns Stadium, which opened in 1999, or the Cavaliers' home, Quicken Loans Arena, or the Indians' Progressive Field, both of which opened in 1994.
"I know I've missed a lot, but that means I have a lot to look forward to," Towler said.
Towler plans to file a civil suit against the state, and he is likely to receive at least $1.4 million for being wrongly convicted. That figure could go much higher when lost wages are factored in.
But yesterday, he wasn't worrying about money.
He picked a casual pizza restaurant for his first meal as a free man because pizza was something his family could share. The store manager's eyes lit up when he saw the large group walk in about 10:30 a.m. Towler's family helped push together five tables and ordered six extra-large pies with the works. The Ohio Innocence Project picked up the tab.
Each person around the table took turns asking Towler questions about his future, not his days in prison. Towler told them that, for now, he plans to focus on his talents with the guitar, keyboard, trumpet and paintbrush. He plans to stay with his brother in Cleveland for a short time but is considering a move to either Cincinnati or New Orleans.
"We are all here for him and will support him no matter what," said Clarence Settles, Towler's brother. "None of us are angry; we just want Ray to enjoy the rest of his life."
Last night, Towler's first day of freedom grew even sweeter.
He had told The Dispatch on Tuesday that it was probably too much to ask to see LeBron James in person at a Cavaliers' playoff game.
But it wasn't. Tad Carper, Cavs vice president of communication, said yesterday that he would invite Towler and three guests to sit courtside for next week's playoff game in Cleveland against the Boston Celtics.
Towler at first thought it was a joke. But as it sunk in, he beamed with more joy than when he learned he was being released. He said he would take his brother, brother-in-law and niece.
"Now, that is what I call a homecoming present," he said.