When I think of death row, convicted murderers, rapists, and drug smugglers come to mind. Cold-blooded criminals, who under the US judicial system don’t deserve to live. Maybe in theory they don’t, but the problem with the death penalty is one can never be entirely certain the accused is guilty. Even with a full panel of 12 jurors, innocent people slip through the cracks into death row. The Exonerated uncovers these cracks carved into America’s judicial system.
Directed by Andrei Schiller-Chan and co-written by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, the documentary play recounts the experiences of six former death row inmates. Locked behind bars for crimes they didn’t commit and the keys in the hands of the US Supreme Court. Six average citizens are screaming inside, targeted and punished, even though they’re innocent.
Feelings of anger and sorrow rippled through the audience with shaken heads and lingering gaps as the US Supreme Court sentences innocent lives to death. Some of those convicted were connected to the actual criminal or victim by the thinnest thread; others were nowhere near the scenes of the crimes, at times even interstate. Nevertheless they were convicted, because someone – if not the real criminal – had to cop the blame, and justice had to be served. Ironically.
The production is dedicated to David McCallum III, wrongly convicted for killing a man in 1985 and who was exonerated last year. Based on true stories, the play is poignantly alive and the actors grab the hearts of the audience. The scripts hold true, the actors using words from real court transcripts, interviews and letters. Inmate Gary Gauger (Joseph Green) laments how police brainwashed him into thinking he murdered his own parents.
“I finally volunteered to give what they call a ‘vision statement’ — a hypothetical account of what I would have done if I had killed my parents,” says Gary. Sleep-deprived and exhausted, Gary agreed to give the statement, while denying his involvement. However police used this statement as his confession and Gary was destined to the cell.
The flaws and corruption within the legal sphere of this ‘promise land’ is bluntly shown by The Exonerated. The play is brutally honest and doesn’t hold back its frustration and fury towards the injustice taking place in 20th century America.
Wrongly sentenced to death row for shooting policemen, inmate Sunny Jacobs (Karla Hillam) was released after almost 20 years but remains lifeless inside. “From 1976 to 1992, just remove that entire chunk from your life, and that’s what happened,” says Sunny.
It’s hard-hitting to hear the US has convicted innocent lives to death and The Exonerated confronts this head on – warts and all. The play is rightfully unforgiving and deeply moving, as the troublesome true-life stories of innocent people are told.
The Exonerated is now performing at Chapel Off Chapel until June 7, more information available via the website.