Review

NEW YORK – One by one they emerge out of the darkness onto the stage. One by one they begin to tell their stories – each one different; each one the same. They are the lucky ones. They are “the exonerated.”

Starring Richard Dreyfuss, Jill Clayburgh and Charles Brown, among others, “The Exonerated,” which premiered here Oct. 10, tells the stories of six individuals sent to death row for crimes they did not commit.

“Exonerated” authors Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen traveled across the country in 2000, interviewing 40 of the then 89 former death row prisoners (there are now at least 102). The 40 were from widely different backgrounds. The only thing they had in common was that all of them had been sentenced to death and spent from two to 22 years on death row before being exonerated and freed.

With a few exceptions, each word spoken in this simply staged but powerful play comes from the public record – legal documents, court transcripts, letters – or from interviews with the exonerated person. The testimony is as spellbinding as it is horrific.

Kerry Max Cook was arrested for killing a neighbor based on a thumbprint he left in her apartment the one time he visited for 15 minutes three months before the murder. Despite overwhelming evidence pointing to the woman’s married boyfriend, Cook was convicted and subjected to unbelievable suffering until DNA evidence exonerated him 22 years later.

Gary Gauger was arrested for the murder of his parents. Traumatized from discovering their bodies, he was convinced by police to tell them how he might have killed his parents if he had wanted to.

They called this a “confession” even though the details didn’t match the actual murder. Gauger won an appeal, which prosecutors fought all the way to the Illinois Supreme Court, although they knew that motorcycle gang members had admitted to the murders.

Robert Earl Hayes, an African-American horse groom, was working at a Florida track when a white woman was raped and murdered. Although the victim was found with strands of long red hair clutched in her hand and her ex-boyfriend had shoulder-length red hair, forensics officers were told to enter only “Negro” hairs into evidence.

Sunny Jacobs, common-law husband Jesse and their two kids accepted a ride from an acquaintance, unaware that he was a parolee, who would murder two policemen and blame the couple for the killings. Sunny and Jesse both received death sentences. Their accuser later recanted his testimony but prosecutors ignored him until it was too late for Jesse.

David Keaton, an 18-year-old African-American star football player with plans for the ministry, was accused of killing a policeman in the course of a robbery.

Although he had an alibi and there was no physical evidence linking him to the crime, police held him cut off from the outside world for a week. Frightened, Keaton confessed, naively assuming that no jury would convict him after they heard from eyewitnesses and learned of his air-tight alibi. He was wrong.

Delbert Tibbs was an African-American former seminary student. Despite the fact that he looked nothing like the man who had raped a woman and killed her boyfriend and there was no physical evidence linking him to the crime, he was convicted and sentenced to death. His own political activism eventually helped overturn his conviction.

The injustices outlined in this gripping play took place in Texas and Florida in the 1970s, but with the Bush brothers overseeing both those states until George W. became president, it’s not hard to imagine how many more innocent people are right now suffering horrifyingly similar nightmares.

As governor of Texas, George W. executed more people than any other governor, while proclaiming that he never killed an innocent man. Unfortunately, the statistics don’t back him up. And Texas and Florida aren’t the only states where this is happening.

An exhaustive 1973-1995 study by Columbia University law professor James Liebman showed that two of every three death sentences were overturned on appeal. He also found the system of capital punishment across the country riddled with error, unfairness and incompetence.

At the end of the play, Richard Dreyfuss appeals to the audience to bring capital punishment supporters to see “The Exonerated.” The goal is not just to entertain but to make a difference, to change people’s minds and eventually abolish the death penalty.

As serious as the subject matter is, “The Exonerated” is not without humor and, as the authors note, is not “a play about anger and revenge [but] really about strength, hope, redemption and forgiveness.” Don’t miss a chance to see it if you can. Although tickets are pricey, a published version is in the works and will include monologues based on additional interviews.

– Carolyn Rummel

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