In the last thirty years almost 1000 people have been executed in the United States of America. Of that number we have no idea how many were innocent. What we do know however is that during that same period there were 112 people who were wrongly imprisoned, sentenced to the death penalty and subsequently released and exonerated.
It is the universal nightmare. To be sentenced to death for a crime you did not commit. To spend decades on death row with only one way out – execution. But in the summer of 2000, two jobbing actors in New York, Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, met, fell in love and decided that two people can make a difference. They embarked upon an idea, at first a small one, to understand why people found themselves on death row and how some were ultimately released from the worst miscarriage of justice. Blank and Jensen present their study in an award-winning play based on the testimonies of six of those survivors of death row in their tour de force, The Exonerated.
I met with Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen at the Riverside Studios in London where their play, The Exonerated is presently playing to sell-out audiences. They are a young, fresh, energetic, and friendly couple clearly very much in love. In many ways the last people you would expect to be interested in either the death penalty or civil liberties. Whilst I interviewed them they would frequently interject and play off the other.
So I started by asking them where it all began. Erik picks up the baton: “It was probably date number five or six and she [Jessica] said ‘I want to take you on a conference on the death penalty’ as a date! At that point in the relationship you pretty much say yes to everything, so I said ‘Yes’. And if she had said, do you want knee surgery? I would have said yes at that point. So we went to this conference on the death penalty at Columbia University.”
Jessica cuts in: “There was this workshop at the Conference about the Death Row Ten in Illinois. They had all had their confessions tortured out of them by a particular police commander. He was fired and everybody had found out about the corruption, but these guys were still sitting in prison.”
Erik continued “The confessions had come purely because the police commander had been using torture. And this is torture we are talking about! Tied jiffy bags over their heads; electric shock to their genitals; phone books to the back of the head. Real brutal stuff that they had learnt in Vietnam.”
It was Jessica’s turn “So the organisers had staged a telephone call with one of the ten prisoners and mostly he was saying he just wanted to go home, but by the end of the call we were both crying and everybody in the room was crying and it was just a very moving experience.”
Most people in such circumstances would have just gone home, watched some television and allow the emotion and guilt to pass. The politics of apathy. But they decided to do something. “We wanted ordinary people to see what we had seen. But the people who really needed to be having this experience would not put themselves in a situation like this. How do you bring this kind of human story to ordinary people? Ordinary people who would not think that they were interested in this kind of subject matter. Being actors we both immediately hit on the idea, of theatre. Because when theatre is done right, that is what it does.”
They then spent the following two months researching everything that they could about the death penalty and its history. They put their idea of a theatre piece on the death penalty to Allan Buchanan who runs the 45 Bleeker Theatre in New York. He agreed to give them his theatre for free for three nights if they could write a play before the November Presidential Elections. The timing was in response to George W Bush who “was running for President, with more executions under his belt as Governor of Texas than all the States combined which had the death penalty.” Allan said ‘Here is one thousand dollars, go, go.’ So we were out of the door and immediately started calling absolutely every person that we knew saying we are doing this thing, help.”
So Erik and Jessica phoned journalists whom they knew and asked basic questions about how to undertake interviews; what the law was; what it meant; how appeals worked and who they should speak to. Jessica explained “So we had been dating for a few months and had no previous contact with the legal system, threw our dog in the back of the rental car, went on the road, criss-crossed the country meeting former death row inmates with the most extraordinary stories we had ever heard”
Erik picked up the story “We wanted to talk to people who had been arrested, found guilty by the courts in the United States for a capital murder, were sentenced to death, had spent time on death row and were freed and then to consider all the evidence”
So they set out in the Summer of 2000 to interview over 40 people who had been exonerated. “We were driving and sleeping in the car to these interviews. We did not have money for even motels. We had a video camera and a tripod. Well we were actors. The tripod and the camera were duck-tapped together. Some of the folks had not done media. Some of them had had CNN trucks and satellite and we had a nice tape recorder from Radio Shack; not that I am saying Radio Shack does not make nice recorders, but….”
On their travels they met people like Sunny Jacobs, a mother of two who spent 17 years on Death Row on the basis of false evidence; Kerry Max Cook, a Texan who was wrongly convicted of murder; Delbert Tibbs, a black Chicago poet who was falsely accused of rape and murder while hitchhiking across America. When they met with these people they had no real idea of what to expect or find.
“We would be walking into interviews thinking that the last interview was the worst thing we had ever heard and it was also the best as the person had come out of it and they were stronger than they had been before; or it would be the worst because the person obviously had not dealt with a lot of the issues that resulted from being there, the anger or the person had some mental illness or something like that. But then we would go into the next interview and our minds would be completely blown again, in a totally different way.”
Jessica continued “one of the things that surprised us was the tone of the stories we heard. When we first started out, we expected lots of tragedy, injustice, rage, depression, loss. We certainly found some of those things. You do not spend years on death row for a crime you did not commit without some anger and loss. But you also do not survive an experience like that without finding something much larger to tap into.”
As Jessica paused for breath her husband continued the theme “so all the people we met had found something inside themselves that helped them to survive, whether that was religion, a sense of personal spirituality, a connection to their community on the outside, simple hope or humour. Humour is one of the most incredible survival tools we have as human beings, and we were amazed to find that many of the exonerated folks we met made us laugh!”
Yet what was of greatest surprise was that “the one thing that every single person had in common was that none of them had the money to hire an attorney who could match the resources of the prosecution.”
Erik took up their case “In a capital case the state often gets upwards of $500,000 to investigate and try a case, sometimes into millions. While a public defender is lucky to get $15,000. And that money does not just go to pay the lawyers, it goes to reinvestigate witnesses, dig up evidence, hire expert witnesses…So what that imbalance means is that often, there is an enormous amount of evidence that the Jury simply does not hear until the appeal state.”
Jessica continued “And that is only if a defendant is lucky enough to find a good attorney who will champion their case pro bono. We heard all kinds of stories of jurors saying that they would never have convicted these individuals if they had had all the evidence that later came to light”
“Sometimes there can be so much pressure on the cops “to get the guy” that getting the right guy gets lost in the shuffle. Other times the police build the case against someone based on prejudice because they are black, or because they work in a gay bar; or because they are bored or a shoelace or that they simply do not want to do the hard work”
So who is to blame?
On this they were in unison. “It is not a who, it is a what. It is hubris. It is the feeling of a person in power, who says that I am in power therefore I am right. I am not to be questioned. In the United States a prosecutor can not be sued for example if you unlawfully convict someone, alternatively, there is no avenue for a prosecutor once he realises that he may have gone down the wrong road with a case to honourably back up and say hold on lets put on the brakes here, I have made a mistake. There is this culture of life. You win your cases. You get those notches on your belt.”
As such Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen blame the system, and in blaming the system they blame themselves. “Is it just the people in power who have the power to exonerate someone or is it all of us? Is it the people? It is for the public to decide. We hope that people leave the theatre coming to terms with the word exonerated. And also coming to terms with their culperability, especially in the United States where the audiences are implicated and they leave going ‘why’”
A message which seems to be getting through. The play ran for a year and a half at 45 Bleeker Theatre. Since then it has toured Philadelphia, New Orleans, Texas, Illinois, Edinburgh and London. Not only has the play attracted the plaudits, it won the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award; but also the A-list celebrities, Stockard Channing (West Wing), Kristin David (Sex in the City), Danny Glover (Lethal Weapon) and Kate Mulgrew (Star Trek Voyager) to name but a few. The play has also raised over half a million dollars for the people whose stories appear in the play. Most people exonerated in the States are given no compensation upon their release.
And to take the tale full circle, we return to Illinois. In one of his last acts as Governor of Illinois, Governor Ryan decided after watching The Exonerated that he too had doubts as to death penalty and verdicts upon which they rely. To that end he commuted the sentences of nearly 200 Illinois Death Row inmates.
Sometimes one person can make a difference, with two; well they might even be able to find justice.