“People really don’t understand it when you see a guy and he’s not behind a bar or he’s not in a blue uniform or a gold uniform, and you’re just free and you able to socialize and somebody not tell you can’t talk to him. It’s great. It’s a family. You know? We are a family.”
ANTIONE HAD A HEAD COLD, and his voice was hoarse. He bundled himself in a navy blue pullover on the chilly February night.
He was set to go on stage within minutes at the $100-a-ticket event at Buddy Guy’s Legends, a famous Chicago blues club, for the Illinois Bar Foundation’s annual Battle of the Bands fundraiser.
Feasting on trays of barbecue and an open bar, the after-work crowd was starting to feel good – lawyers, judges and law students. A handful of exonerees attended, including James Kluppelberg, who stood toward the side of the hall, finding it difficult to carry on a conversation over the chatter and noise.
Follow the stories of three Illinois exonerees through their wrongful convictions, releases and struggles to put their lives back together as free men.
The roster of dueling bands consisted of a couple ensembles of lawyers and judges with legal pun names: The Objections and DisBard. But Antione’s band had a simple name and premise: Exoneree Band, formerly incarcerated and exonerated guys. The group was one of two bands Antione liked to jam with from time to time. Antione and his buddy Raymond Towler were two of the Exoneree Band regulars, playing at other fundraisers and events.
Towler lived in Ohio where he spent almost 30 years of life sentence behind bars for a rape and kidnapping that he did not commit. In May 2010, a judge ordered his release, choking back tears. Towler was 24 when he was wrongfully convicted, and 52 years old when he won his freedom. At Buddy Guy’s, a thick gray beard covered Towler’s face as he tuned up his guitar while his girlfriend shot video from a handheld camera, standing mid-crowd.
The president of the Illinois Bar Foundation took the stage and called on Laura Caldwell, who jumped up and took the microphone to introduce the exonerees.
“Raymond Towler, who served almost 30 years,” Laura began, pausing as the crowd clapped.
“Antione Day, who served 10 years for a murder he didn’t commit.”
Exoneree Band opened with “Mustang Sally”, collecting yelps from the crowd. Antione introduced the next song, shaking his head and apologizing for his weak voice that he had lost three days earlier. The band had only practiced for four hours, he told the crowd, as guitar chords lightly strummed, filling the empty space between songs.
“They call it stormy Monday, Tuesday’s just as bad,” Antione sang softly. His voice registered just above a whisper, and he played the drums. “Lord, and Wednesday’s worse, and Thursday’s all so sad.”
Antione took a break on the vocals as the band played an instrumental number. Towler had written the song for a friend still on the inside.
“For a guy who didn’t get out of jail,” Antione told the crowd.
By the end of the set, Antione had warmed up his voice and started to smile, feeling the music. He clicked his drumsticks to kick off the next song. The guitarists weren’t sure when to come in, but Antione didn’t let up, clicking away until they joined him.
Towler mouthed to the bassist, “Wrong chord.” Antione chimed in, his voice gaining strength to Otis Redding’s song, “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay.”
The cheers masked the cracks in Antione’s voice as it grew louder and stronger by the final song. “Glory, Hallelujah!” he sang, wrapping up the more than half-hour set.
The host took the stage again, shouting above the audience’s applause: “Let’s hear it for the Exonerees!”