Taken from Death Row

Issue section: 

John Cresswell is touched by this anti-death penalty production.

The Exonerated
Director: Bob Balaban
Riverside Studios, London

"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." Jesse was innocent.

In Ohio, Scotsman Kenny Richey has been waiting to die for 19 years. He has repeatedly protested his innocence. Thirteen times he has been told to prepare to face the same fate as Jesse.

The Exonerated is about what it feels like to be Kenny, and what it must have felt like to be Jesse, or Edward Earl Johnson, who was gassed to death in Mississippi 19 years ago for a murder he didn't commit. It's about the 122 people in the US who spent between two to 22 years on death row for crimes they did not commit but who, unlike Jesse and Edward and so far Kenny, were released.

The Exonerated was created by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen. In the summer of 2000 they interviewed 60 of the 122. Six of these interviews form the core of this performance.

In the US it played for over two years and some of its long and impressive list of cast members, including Danny Glover, Kathleen Turner and Richard Dreyfuss, as well as some consummate British names, are slated for this run.

More extraordinarily, four real-life "exonerees" - Kerry Max, Gary Gauger, Sunny Jacobs (Jesse's wife) and Delbert Tibbs have also appeared. But the real strength of The Exonerated comes from the stories the six tell.

All young and poor, three of them black, they were victims of police corruption or political expediency, faked testimony, plea-bargaining by the real culprit, or testimony beaten or tricked from them. Most were denied legal council and subject to highly dubious judicial procedures. Kerry, imprisoned at 19 years old and destined to spend the next 22 years of his life on death row had this said about him by the prosecution (he worked in a gay bar, but he wasn't gay):

"So let's let all the freaks and perverts and murderous homosexuals of the world know what we do with them in a court of justice. That we take their lives."

All the six have similar stories to tell of what it was like to wait for the day of their execution. David, a young black student interested in becoming a preacher before he was falsely convicted of shooting a police officer, tells us how the electric chair was in full view every day as he and the other inmates played basketball.

All six survived, but it is clear that though some have managed to build a life for themselves afterwards, they are all permanently damaged. None has received a penny in compensation, and a collection was held at the end of the performance.

Don't expect a play when you come to see The Exonerated it's more of a dramatised reading. Though beautifully acted - particularly Stockard Channing as the still hippyish Sunny - this is a weakness.

It might have been more dramatically powerful to have fully explored fewer of the stories. However, that would have made it impossible for such an array of stars to take part, and then maybe this production wouldn't have had such a high profile or long run in the US. Also, you aren't going to hear any analysis of why the death penalty still exists in the US. If you want to understand that, read the race and prison section in Jonathan Neale's excellent What's Wrong With America?

But you should see this production, and take anyone who has the slightest doubt that the death penalty is, as Amnesty International (which supports The Exonerated and is campaigning for the release of Kenny Richey), says, "cruel and unnecessary, does not deter crime... is itself a human rights abuse and brings with it a host of other human rights abuses."

It should also remove all doubts that the US "justice" system is based on anything other than the colour of your skin and how much money you have.

The Exonerated is running until 11 June, for more information go to www.theexonerated.com