INNOCENT? Pitts-Wiley [foreground] and Henderson. [Photo by Richard W. Dionne, Jr.]
Don't ever get arrested for a serious crime. That's one of the infuriating lessons learned from The Exonerated, a drama of justice delayed written by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen.
A collaboration by 2nd Story Theatre and Mixed Magic Theatre brings it to the Bristol Courthouse (through June 30). No director credit is given, except for Ed Shea and Jonathan Pitts-Wiley being listed as artistic directors of the respective theaters.
In a brisk, to-the-point 80 minutes, we learn how six death row inmates narrowly escaped the electric chair or lethal injection, in overlapping stories based on actual occurrences.
They are a varied lot. Gary Gauger (Tom Chace) was convicted of killing his mother and father in an Illinois trailer park. Kerry Max Cook (Joe Henderson) was convicted of murdering a Texas neighbor. Robert Earl Hayes (Amos Hamrick, Jr.) was a black worker at a Florida racetrack who was convicted of murdering a white woman there. Also black and convicted in Florida, Delbert Tibbs (Ricardo Pitts-Wiley) was accused of raping a white woman after killing her boyfriend, despite no evidence that he had been at the crime scene. David Keaton (Edward V. Crews) was convicted of murdering a Florida police officer. Sonia "Sunny" Jacobs (Joanne Fayan), was convicted along with her common law ex-con husband and his prison pal of killing a Florida state trooper and a police officer visiting from Canada. (Some audience members gasped at mention that a 1979 confession by someone else did not lead to her release until 1992.)
Their stories are aided by various incidental characters, played by MJ Daly, Emily Lewis, Brendan Macera, and Alex Duckworth.
The police certainly have a lot of tools at their disposal, if they choose to use them, to keep a suspect behind bars. They can lie, while stressing to the accused that they can't be lying because they would lose their jobs for doing so. They can threaten and even torture, psychologically and physically, to wring a confession out of a suspect, whether they think he did it or they just want to boost their conviction rate.
As we see on TV crime shows, cops know who a lot of the bad guys are as they wait around hoping to nab them in the act. As a mischievous 18-year-old, Cook stole the car of a deputy sheriff, who forever after suspected him of unsolved petty crimes. In the murder case, his public defender was a former prosecutor who had tried to convict him on two previous occasions. So it was not surprising that his lawyer didn't object to the judge allowing the prosecutor to continually refer to Cook's fingerprint at the crime scene as having been left at the time of the murder, which was impossible to determine.
These victims may be innocent without being innocents. Tibbs, for example, was exonerated two years after his conviction but spent three more years in prison for a crime he did commit. Jacobs was not exonerated after spending 17 years in prison but rather had her sentence commuted to time served after pleading to second-degree murder. Hayes was innocent of killing the white woman he was dating, but 10 years after his release he pled guilty to manslaughter in a rape-murder. Nevertheless, confining justice to the morally worthy is like restricting food stamps to the deserving poor.