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Listening to the exonerated


The Exonerated” is a show without scenery, costumes and even action, but by the end of the 90-minute performance I was in tears.

Jill Clayburgh and Richard Dreyfuss head a cast of 10 in this new off-Broadway play that dramatizes the cases of five men and a woman, sentenced to death for crimes they did not commit. In the summer of 2000, married authors Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen interviewed 40 of the then 89 former death row prisoners who have been exonerated. Going as far south as Miami and Texas and as far north as Chicago, they sat in living rooms of people from different ethnic, religious and educational backgrounds. What all 40 had in common was that they had been sentenced to death and spent between two and 22 years on death row before being found innocent and freed by the state.

In addition to the interviews, the authors “spent countless hours in the dusty records rooms of courthouses, pawing through thousands (we are not exaggerating) of microfiche files and cardboard boxes full of affidavits, depositions, police interrogations and court transcripts in order to fill in the story gaps,” they write in notes about the production. Every word in the play comes from court records, depositions or the interviews.

Clayburgh plays Sunny Jacobs, arrested in 1976 with her two children in tow after following her common-law husband, Jesse Tafero, to Florida. They were given a ride by Walter Rhodes, a casual acquaintance of Jesse’s who was a parole violator. When his car was stopped by police, Rhodes shot two policemen and kidnapped Jesse, Sunny and the children, taking them on a high-speed chase until they were stopped by a roadblock. A career criminal who knew how to manipulate the justice system, Rhodes agreed to a plea in which he would testify against Jesse and Sunny. With no witnesses and only a court-appointed lawyer to argue weakly for them, Jesse and Sunny were convicted and sentenced to death.

While they were on death row in 1979, Rhodes recanted his testimony and confessed to the crime, but was ignored by prosecutors. “Keep in mind that I wasn’t released until 1992,” Sunny says, drawing loud gasps from the audience. “So I’ll just give you a moment to reflect: From 1976 to 1992, just remove that entire chunk from your life, and that’s what happened.”

Jesse wasn’t so fortunate. He was put to death in 1990. “Jesse’s execution was known worldwide,” Sunny says. “The chair malfunctioned and made a mess of it. … It took 13-and-a-half minutes for Jesse to die. Three jolts of electricity that lasted 55 seconds each. … Until finally flames shot out from his head, and smoke came from his ears, and people that came to see the execution, on behalf of the press, are still writing about it. Ten years afterwards. Why do we do that?”

Dreyfuss plays Kerry Max Cook, arrested in the 1970s when he was 22, accused of killing Linda Jo Edwards, an acquaintance in his apartment complex. Kerry had been in her apartment once, and forensics investigators found his fingerprint on the doorframe. With only that tiny shred of evidence, and despite overwhelming evidence implicating Linda’s older, married boyfriend, Kerry was convicted and sentenced to death.

While in prison, he was the target of extreme violence from other prisoners and, over the years, learned of the deaths of most of his family. He also tells of the 141 fellow prisoners executed. He would hear their names on the radio “and I say, ‘Oh my God, ’cause I know him, I mean, I don’t just know him, we used to play basketball, and talk about, man, you’re gonna go free.’ ”

After 22 years, he was released because of DNA evidence. But he doesn’t feel free. “The state of Texas executed me over a thousand times, man, and it just keeps on doin’ it. I mean, everyday when I get in the shower I’m reminded of it, ’cause I cannot avoid the scars all over my body.” He has a 5-year-old book about the Texas death row “and everyone in here has been executed. I can go through that book, one by one, and point out every face in here that’s gone.”

The play calls for minimal sets and props, with actors addressing the audience to tell their stories, parts of which would be enacted behind them. When I saw it in early previews, however, the actors sat on stools and told their tales, referring frequently to the scripts in front of them. Stories unfolded gradually, going back and forth between experiences. A spotlight shone on the actor speaking, the rest were blacked out. Staged readings like this usually aren’t theatrical, but because of the power of the stories, this was intense. The scripted action probably would have been distracting.

When the performance was over, Dreyfuss asked the audience to invite friends and family members who support capital punishment. “It’s important that people see this play whose thinking might be changed,” he said, before asking people to put donations in the ushers’ baskets because “there is no pay back, no remuneration” for those who have been on death row. The money would “go directly to our exonerated friends.”

Then in what was possibly the most dramatic moment in an afternoon filled with them, he said he wanted to acknowledge some important guests. I thought he would mention high-profile actors in the audience -- I had seen Eli Wallach in the lobby before the show -- but the doors opened and in walked several of the real-life exonerated, Kerry Max Cook among them. He held a toddler with curly blond hair and rosy cheeks who smiled and waved at someone in the audience, looking like one of those beautiful children in Baby Gap ads. It was hard to reconcile that happy, picture-perfect baby with the horrible story we had just heard of his father’s life. Director Bob Balaban couldn’t have found a more powerful ending.

Audience members were invited to stay and talk to the exonerated and the actors, but few did. Maybe they felt the way I did, unable to talk. There was, though, hope in Sunny’s final words.

“I want to be a living memorial. I’m planting my seeds everywhere I go, so that they’ll say, ‘I once heard this woman, and she didn’t let them stop her, and she didn’t get crushed, and if that little woman person can do it, then I can do it.’ And that’s my revenge. That’s my legacy and my memorial.

“You know, I’ve never been to Jesse’s grave, and for a long time it was a bone of contention between his mother and me. But I explained to her, I said, ‘That grave is not where Jesse really is.’ I said, ‘That grave is your monument, and this is mine. My life is my monument.’ ”

Retta Blaney’s latest book, Working on the Inside: The Spiritual Life Through the Eyes of Actors, will be published next year by Sheed & Ward.

Theater information:

“The Exonerated” is at 45 Bleecker Theater in Greenwich Village. For tickets, call (212) 307-4100. For more information see the theater’s Web site: www.45bleecker.com

National Catholic Reporter, October 25, 2002