Several hours before they were set to perform, the men who make up the Exoneree Band spent their morning preparing the stage at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Springfield, Illinois, for a sold-out show.
Their preparation appeared almost meditative, as the seasoned musicians worked methodically and quietly while tending to details others might rather leave to a road crew to figure out.
It was the work of experts at home in their artistry and with each other, even though they're usually scattered across the country.
"We only get together when we have a show," Eddie Lowery, who plays acoustic guitar and sings, told InsideEdition.com.
It wasn’t an ordinary setup for a band, but they aren't any ordinary band.
For clues into Exoneree Band’s origin story, look no further than their name.
The Exoneree Band is a touring group made up of men who each won their freedom years after being convicted of crimes they did not commit.
Brought together through shared experiences and bonded through their love of music, the men — who collectively spent 92 years in prison — have dedicated their time to addressing flaws in the system that made their convictions possible.
"That’s why we’re there [performing]," lead guitarist Raymond Towler said. "To educate and inform."
To hear its members talk, the Exoneree Band was inevitable.
"Six of us gravitated toward each other, and we stuck together like glue, and started just working on our own music and each other’s music, learning it," Lowery said.
The group met at a conference for exonerated persons in Cincinnati in 2009. Each of the men originally planned to perform alone at the event’s talent show, but instead they chose to take to the stage together.
"Here we are, 10 years later, still playing together," singer and drummer Antione Day said. "A collective of great brothers who love and support one another. So, we got a family now. It’s not just a band."
The band plays original music that focuses on being wrongly incarcerated, an experience they are all unfortunately able to call their own.
Towler spent 29 years in prison for murder in Ohio; Day served 10 years for murder in Illinois; William Dillon, who plays guitar and provides vocals for the band, served 27 years behind bars for the 1981 beating death of a man; bass player Ted Bradford was wrongfully imprisoned for 10 years for a 1995 home invasion and rape; and Lowery spent 10 years in prison for a 1981 sexual assault and burglary in Kansas. He continued to fight his conviction even after being released and, 11 years later, was officially exonerated.
“When I share my story as an individual … I always encourage people, ‘Don’t give up. Be positive,’” Lowery said. “Because there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel, you know?”
The band has been a saving grace for some of its members, who have come into their own after realizing they can have an impact with their music.
“While I was locked up, I never would’ve thought I would someday be in a band and making music, writing my own music,” Bradford said. “It’s just been a dream come true. It’s really a blessing to be able to share my story of my wrongful conviction, and also get a chance to write and play music.”
Bradford joined the band in 2012, two years before the passing of one of its founding members, Darby Tillis, who was wrongfully convicted of the 1977 murder and armed robbery of the owner and an employee of a hot dog stand in Chicago. Tillis was sentenced to death after being found guilty in what was his third trial; the first two ended in hung juries.
The Illinois Supreme Court reversed the case based on judicial error, and in 1987, Tillis was acquitted. Fourteen years later, the governor pardoned him and his co-defendant, Perry Cobb.
“He turned his whole life onto making all the death penalties stop all over the country,” Towler said of Tillis, whose work was part protest, part performance art.
Clad in an orange jumpsuit and with his wrists bound, Tillis would take to the streets with a megaphone and a harmonica. He would march as supporters trailed behind him, and eventually, he would sing.
“Cuffs on my wrist, shackles on my feet, moving and grooving to the death row beat, we're doing the death row shuffle,” Tillis would sing.
“People would stop, [thinking,] ‘Did he escape?’” Towler recalled. “He had a powerful message, so we always, in memory of him, always mention his name and what he did for the band, what he did for the country.”
Tillis’ spirit is embodied by the band, which sets out to educate as it entertains.
Songs like Day’s “Four Years in the Hole,” or Dillon’s “Black Robes and Lawyers” are grim, but encapsulate what the men went through while behind bars for crimes they didn’t commit.
“I’ve had multiple people say that I’ve inspired them, and I’ll be honest with you, I try to,” Dillon said. “Whenever I tell my story to someone or to people, I try to inspire one person, because I know if I inspire somebody with something, that they’ll remember it.”
The band’s need to imprint their stories on others stems from a desire to change a system they said failed them — first in convicting them, then in providing little to no resources after they won their freedom.
“I was fortunate because my family, I have a strong family … I have people who were there for me, to support me through it,” Day said. “But there’s a lot of people who don’t.”
He’s watched as others have gotten out of prison, only to take their lives, or turn to drugs or a life of crime.
“Because the system don’t do anything for you; it just incarcerate you. It warehouse you, and then it spit you out, and then tell you to make it on your own,” he said. “If not, [it’s,] ‘We’ll see you again.’”
But Day and his bandmates chose a different path: using the talents they have in the ways they know how to attempt to fix the system.
“Who I am is somebody who wants to teach and uplift other people, so I'm not gonna let prison give me a whole other character that I didn't deserve, that I didn't want,” he said.
Their resiliency doesn’t go unnoticed.
“To have these individuals come out without a deep bitterness … they come out as incredible human beings who are just wanting to take the pieces of their life that are left, and make something of it,” Larry Golden, founding director of the Illinois Innocence Project, told InsideEdition.com. “You know, being with people whose life in fact has been stolen, for a good part of their life … for them to come out, they've just taught me so much. They don't realize how much they give to us.”
The band's work has taken them across the country, mostly playing at conferences held by different chapters of the Innocence Project. They sing about being wrongly convicted mostly to crowds familiar with the issue, but with an album of music and a documentary in the works, they look forward to seeing their music transcend.
“My hope is … more and more people will take notice that wrongful convictions happen,” Bradford said.
It’s an issue experts say has no resolution in sight. Since 1989, there have been more than 2,400 people exonerated in the U.S., according to the National Registry of Exonerations. Their time in prison totals more than 21,290 years.
“Over the years, we've had almost 3,000 letters requesting our help… I would say every month or so, we get another serious request from somebody,” Golden said of the Illinois Innocence Project specifically. “I don't say this too often in public, but I just turned 75 years old. I retired in 2004 from my paid job, and I'm working as hard today as I did before I retired, and the reason is because it's so rewarding….
"I couldn't walk away from this if I wanted to.”
The ballroom of the Crowne Plaza Hotel was packed for the Exoneree Band's performance on March 30.
They would be taking the stage for the 12th Annual Defenders of the Innocent Event, which celebrates the Illinois Innocence Project, criminal justice reform and the people who have won their hard-fought freedom.
“Your work for the State of Illinois brings justice to the land of Lincoln and has for so many years,” Sen. Dick Durbin said during his speech that night. “We are trying at the federal level and you are succeeding so well at the state level. Together, our goal is the same: justice in this great country and this great state.”
When it was the band’s turn to shine, they were met with a standing ovation before even playing a beat.
And finally, it came time for what everyone was waiting for: the music.
People danced, clapped and swayed as the band performed, an experience they know to savor.
“It’s a great feeling,” Day said. “After you’ve been told for so many years that you was gonna rot in prison, that you was never gonna add up to anything, when you get in a position where you can entertain people, and you can make them smile, and they feeling good about what you’re doing? Man, that’s a thing you could never, you could never imagine someone taking away from you.”
The Exoneree Band finished its set to another raucous round of applause. They smiled, clapped in return for their audience and mouthed “thank you” to everyone in attendance, appearing to linger on stage for as long as they wanted.
After all, they had all the time in the world.