The Exonerated is a powerful verbatim play (compiled and eloquently structured by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen) that brings the audience face-to-face with six victims of the American justice system (so-called) - people who had to spend years on Death Row before their innocence was eventually proved. It's very cleanly and simply staged - a cast of 10 actors (including visiting film stars) sit in a line at lecterns - and the script is based on interview material, court transcripts and letters relating to these cases. The quietly compelling production, by Bob Baladan, is all the more effective for keeping its anger so controlled. With an argument this powerful, there is no need for raised voices.
We're introduced to a world of appalling inequities. The police emerge as a body less interested in solving murders than in notching up convictions, which is bad news for anyone black or from the white underclass or with a record for lesser offences who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It also means that the innocent can fall foul of the iniquitous plea-bargain system whereby the wised-up can trade in false evidence for their own acquittal. Movingly played on the night I caught the piece by Stockard Channing, Sunny Jacobs, a gentle hippie type, was framed for the murder of two policemen. Sixteen years before she was released, the true culprit had made a full confession and, though she eventually walked free, it was without her equally misjudged husband Jess, who in 1989 had been executed for the murder in a bungled electrocution that took 13 minutes.
The piece continues to be painfully revealing as it follows the exonerated into the insecurities of freedom. "The state of Texas executed me a thousand times over, man, and it just keeps on doin' it," declares the haunted Kerry, his pain beautifully understated in Aidan Quinn's performance.
Thrown on Death Row when he was 19, on a murder charge established by unscientific fingerprint evidence, this man had to go through repeated violent rape and to live with the knowledge that his wrongful conviction had led to the alcoholic decline and murder of his older brother, before DNA testing proved his innocence more than two decades later. It can't help his peace of mind to think that, as the result of a plea bargain, his sibling's killer got a 10-year sentence and was out in three.
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