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Settlement reached in wrongful conviction

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, Feb. 7, 2010, at 12:07 a.m.
  • Updated Sunday, Feb. 7, 2010, at 7:09 a.m.

Eddie Lowery lived at the Kansas State Penitentiary at Lansing for nearly a decade.

"It was a very intimidating, scary place," he said. "Prisons today are built with fences and barbed wire, but these older prisons... they're just big walls. You don't get see outside. You just get to see straight up in the air."

Lowery, 50, was paroled from Lansing in 1991 and spent much of the next decade living in Kansas City, Mo., as a registered sex offender.

He was exonerated in 2002 when DNA tests showed the semen taken from the 74-year-old rape victim had come from someone else.

Last month, at the end of a nearly six-year legal fight, Lowery settled a lawsuit against the agencies involved in his arrest for $7.5 million.

And last week, prosecutors announced that a New York City man, Daniel Lee Brewer, 55, had been arrested and charged with the rape.

"It's been a long and emotional roller-coaster ride," Lowery said. "I'm excited that the case is finally over, that the hearings and depositions are behind me."

Lowery said he doesn't know how much of the settlement he'll receive after legal fees and other expenses are deducted.

"It's going to be over 4 (million), but under 5," he said. "I haven't heard a figure yet. No one's actually called me and said, 'Hey, Eddie, here's what you're getting.' "

Lowery also said he's not sure how the settlement will change his life.

"I never had this kind money before," he said. "I'm from a working-class family. I've been a blue-collar worker all my life.

"I've got two kids to put through college.... Maybe I'll sit back, relax and collect my thoughts and write a book."

Lowery's lawyers said his conviction was based entirely on a false confession. The Innocence Project, a nonprofit organization that helped with his case, said 25 percent of the 225 wrongful convictions it has documented were based on false confessions.

The crime

Lowery grew up in Covina, Calif., and joined the Army in April 1979 after graduating from high school. He landed at Fort Riley in August 1979 and moved into a mobile home park in the nearby town of Ogden.

Court records show that Lowery was having a late-night party at his home on the date of the crime — July 26, 1981. It was around 3 that morning when he decided he had to get away.

"I've had some family problems, and I was just getting away from the people around my trailer," he later testified.

Lowery was two blocks from home when he crashed into a parked Cadillac. The Cadillac's owner called police. An officer arrived to take a report around 4 from the owner and Lowery.

That same morning, just a few blocks away, a 74-year-old woman was asleep when someone cut the screen on her back door, unlatched the lock and came inside.

The intruder covered the woman's face, held a knife to her throat and raped her. She called police after the attacker left, and an ambulance drove her to a Manhattan hospital at 3:30 that morning. She could not provide a description of her attacker.

Manhattan lawyer Barry Clark, who represents Lowery, said investigating officers were stumped.

"They had no suspects," he said. "There was no one to look at."

The interrogation

When Lowery returned home from his job at Fort Riley the next afternoon, he found a message from Riley County police. He agreed to go to police headquarters to answer some questions. He thought they wanted to talk about the accident, he said, but they wanted to talk about a rape.

"I kept on telling them I didn't do anything," he said of that first interview.

Lowery said one of the officers seemed convinced from the outset that he was the rapist.

"He told me he had 10 more years on the force, and if it took him that 10 years he was going to prove that I committed this crime," Lowery later testified.

That evening, Lowery signed a waiver that allowed police to search his car and home. He returned to police headquarters the next day and was questioned for most of the day.

"They were doing a 'good cop, bad cop' routine on me, but I didn't know it at the time," he said.

"I was so naive I didn't know I could probably just get up and leave.... They just wore me down to the point that I thought in my mind that I couldn't leave until I was under arrest or something.

"I just finally told them what they wanted to hear. I just repeated everything they said.

"They acted like they weren't going to let me go until they got something out of me."

Clark said the state's case seemed shaky when it got to court.

"The evidence of guilt in this case was very thin," he said. "The centerpiece of the case was his confession."

Lowery stood trial twice in Riley County District Court. The first trial ended in November 1981 with a hung jury. At the end of the second trial he was convicted of aggravated burglary, aggravated battery and rape. Lowery said he was stunned by the verdict.

"I actually didn't think I was going to be convicted because they had no fingerprints and no eyewitness,'' he said.

"They had no evidence to put me at that crime besides that false confession."

He was sentenced to 11 years to life in prison.

Life in prison

While awaiting trial, Lowery's cellmates in the Riley County Jail told him that sex offenders commanded little or no respect in prison. He decided to tell his prison cellmates that he was serving time for robbery.

"No one found out I was actually in there on a rape case; I was able to keep that hidden," he said.

While in prison, Lowery held a job making highway signs. He occupied his spare time with sports.

"I just survived the best I could," he said.

Lowery was paroled in October 1991, but he said his past followed him to his new home in Kansas City, Mo., where he now lives with his second wife and their two children.

As a registered sex offender, he said, he had to drive to the local sheriff's office every three months to have his picture taken.

He said he was devastated when a local newspaper published his name and address along with those of other area sex offenders. He put a large plant in his front yard so his address couldn't be seen from the street.

The exoneration

After his release, Lowery started reading about advances in DNA technology and wondered whether it might help his case.

"I've always wanted to prove my innocence, to prove some way, some how, that I didn't commit this crime," he said.

He called the lawyer who represented him at trial, and the lawyer referred him to Clark.

"We sat down in a conference room, and he told me his story," Clark recalled of that first meeting. "I very quickly concluded that this guy was telling the truth. He was convincing. I knew this guy had suffered a grave injustice."

Clark promised to see what he could do.

"They had the police reports and some of the narrative reports, but none of the physical evidence," he said. "It was a 20-year old case, and I wouldn't have expected them to keep it forever."

Clark said he was encouraged by the court file's last entry, which was an order not to destroy evidence in the case. It didn't help that the police department had moved to a new building across town.

Clark said a friendly court clerk eventually found the "rape kit" from Lowery's case in a manila envelope in the back of an evidence vault.

Clark said the Kansas Bureau of Investigation still had cloth cuttings taken from the victim's clothing and bedding.

He said defense lawyers ended up with seven or eight usable pieces of evidence. Half were tested by the KBI. The others were sent to a DNA lab hired by the defense team. All the tests showed that Lowery wasn't the one who left his DNA at the crime scene.

On April 3, 2002, a judge signed an order absolving Lowery of all charges in a crime that had occurred more than two decades earlier.

The civil case

Lowery said his incarceration ruined his relationship with a 3-year-old daughter. He was dishonorably discharged from the Army.

After his arrest, he said, he saw his mother only twice before she died. He said his father died not knowing that he'd been exonerated.

"It destroyed a lot of my personal life," he said.

Lowery eventually filed a lawsuit seeking compensation for the loss of income, as well as what his lawyers described as humiliation, indignity, embarrassment, degradation and injury to reputation.

"This has never been about money for me, but I've always felt that someone should be held responsible for their actions in my case," he said.

"Unfortunately, sometimes the only way to get someone to listen is to hit them in the wallet, and that's what we did with this lawsuit."

Clark, enlisting the help of Innocence Project lawyers, filed the case in U.S. District Court. After years of legal maneuvering, the case was settled with the help of a mediator.

In a memo to the Manhattan City Commission, the Manhattan city attorney outlined a settlement plan that called for the city to pay $1.34 million. Riley County was to pay $336,000. The rest would be paid by insurance companies that represented the cities and agencies involved.

Had the case gone to trial, the memo said, Lowery's claim would have exceeded "$35 million plus substantial attorney fees." The city attorney recommended that the Manhattan City Commission approve the settlement. All parties to the case eventually did.

"Defendants do not admit liability under the agreement, but enter it simply to bring the matter to resolution," the city attorney said in his memo.

The Riley County Law Enforcement Agency released a statement that said, "It is entirely possible that had DNA technology been available to us in 1981, Mr. Lowery would not have served even a day in prison."

The statement noted that all Riley County police interrogations are now videotaped — a fact that Lowery said was particularly encouraging.

"My satisfaction came when I proved my innocence," he said. "I guess my satisfaction also comes in doing my part to see that it's not happening to somebody else."

Reach Hurst Laviana at 316-268-6499 or hlaviana@wichitaeagle.com.

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