- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 18, 2003

"The Exonerated," a 90-minute play about six real-life inmates wrongly convicted of capital crimes, is as riveting as a "Court TV" investigation. Of course, you don't get to vote on guilt or innocence you know from the get-go they didn't do it. Instead, you wait with mounting impatience while the wheels of justice turn and turn and turn some more.
The audience only has to wait an hour or so, but the people whose cases are dramatized here had to wait for nearly 30 years on death row for their long-overdue vindication.
While our advance knowledge of the condemned's innocence dilutes the play's dramatic impact, the calm, matter-of-fact unfolding of their individual stories more than makes up for the lack of conventional suspense.
The subtle power of "The Exonerated" starts with the staging a bare stage furnished with a row of 10 black chairs. The actors Larry Block, Ed Blunt, Jim Bracchitta, Chad L. Coleman, Johanna Day, Brian Dennehy, Mia Farrow, Chad Lowe, William Jay Marshall and Tracie Thoms are dressed in casual street clothes and sit in front of script stands.
There is very little music, dramatic lighting or sound effects. Director Bob Balaban relies instead on the spare beauty of an actor's voice (badly miked) and the quiet power of compelling stories simply told.
The actors speak in turn, ingratiating themselves with the audience before gradually revealing the misfortunes large and small that plagued them throughout their ordeals. The play's authors, Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, cobbled the stories of the six persons represented in the play from court documents, transcripts and, most important, their own interviews with some 40 men and women who had each served more than two decades on death row.
And what stories.
The aptly named Sunny Jacobs (Miss Farrow) was convicted of shooting two Florida state troopers. A hippie who naively believed that telling the truth would set her free, she did not know that the actual murderer made a deal with the district attorney in exchange for his freedom. As if that weren't bad enough, the man confessed to the crimes six years later, but, because of the slow workings of justice, Sunny was not released from death row until 1992, nearly 20 years after her conviction.
You grieve for Sunny, who missed out on the childhood and young adulthood of her two children. You also mourn for Kerry Max Cook (Mr. Lowe), accused of the rape and murder of a woman he met once, who lost his entire youth on death row. He emerged in the '90s stunted a grown man on the outside, but inside still a damaged, tentative 19-year-old.
Another long-timer is Gary Gauger (Mr. Dennehy), convicted of gruesomely murdering his parents after submitting, during a 15-hour interrogation, a "vision hypothesis" about how he would have done the deed. Many years later, it is discovered, thanks to an Illinois law professor, that Gauger's parents were killed by two Outlaw motorcycle gang members during an initiation rite.
Being in the wrong place and the wrong race spelled disaster for three black men in the play. Delbert Tibbs (Mr. Marshall), a jailhouse poet who somehow held onto his beat poet ideals during his imprisonment, admits to having had to learn how to feel all over again after his release. David Keaton (Mr. Coleman), arrested in a grocery store robbery-murder because the small town needed to lock up somebody for the crime, lost his faith in God a greater loss even than his unrecoverable years behind bars.
Robert Earl Hayes (Mr. Blunt) was imprisoned for the rape and murder of a white woman. To that grievous injury is added, on his release, an infuriating insult: Robert can buy a gun with ease, but because of his prison time he cannot renew his horse training license. Forbidden to ply his trade, he can't work to put meat on his table. Of course, there is the gun, so hunting his own meat is an option.
The criminal justice system police, courts, corrections, all of 'em takes a beating in the play. It makes you think back to all of those heroic cops of television and movie crime dramas: in the zeal to convict, are cops always on the right side? When they get their man, do they always get the right one? "God is DNA," remarks one character, and if you leave with any message from this work, it is that DNA not the court system is the one reliable arbiter of who is a criminal and who isn't.
The unrelenting one-sidedness of the play makes a strong case for repealing the death penalty, but it also has an unintended side effect. After all the speeches and proselytizing, I had to wonder: Are we supposed to believe that everyone in prison is innocent?
After seeing "The Exonerated," the audience seemed ready to organize a ticker-tape parade for the governor of Illinois for emptying his state's death row. But is it really that simple? Should all those guilty of murder be spared simply because not all those on death row are guilty of murder? What about the alleged Beltway snipers? If they're convicted, should they be spared?
Capital punishment is a knotty moral problem. Unless, that is, you're talking about a hand-picked group of people tragically convicted and definitively exonerated. Then, the answer is easy.
Do we need a play to supply us with easy answers?

WHAT: "The Exonerated" by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen
WHEN: 8 p.m. through tomorrow
WHERE: Warner Theatre, 13th and E Street, NW
TICKETS:$16.50 to $59
PHONE: 202/432-SEAT

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