Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen on Creating The Exonerated
When original producer Allan Buchman contacted us earlier this year about reviving the original Off-Broadway production of The Exonerated, we were thrilled. It hardly seemed possible that ten years had passed since the play’s opening at Culture Project, but they had—and in those years, the national conversation about wrongful conviction and the death penalty has expanded more than we ever could have expected.
When we first brought the idea for The Exonerated to Allan, in the spring of 2000, we were a couple very young, impassioned actors, newly dating, with no money, little experience, and a big idea: travel across America, interview people who had been sentenced to death and subsequently freed amidst overwhelming evidence of their innocence; and create a documentary play from those interviews. Allan gave us rehearsal space, some seed money, and a tight deadline for a first draft. That deadline was so short (four months!) because that spring, wrongful conviction had suddenly burst into the news: Columbia University had released the results of a major long-term study that showed a high risk of convicting the innocent in capital cases; an execution date was set for Gary Graham, a Texas death row inmate whose guilt was in serious doubt, drawing national media attention; Governor George Ryan of Illinois, a pro-death penalty Republican, had just declared a moratorium on executions in his state because of the alarming rate of wrongful conviction; and another George was running for President for the first time—with more executions carried out under his watch in Texas than under any other governor, in any state, since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976. We thought we had a teeny, tiny window to get something up and into the public eye before our country’s attention wandered elsewhere and left the issue of wrongful conviction behind.
Boy, were we wrong.
In the years since The Exonerated first opened Off-Broadway, 44 people have been exonerated and released from death row. New York’s death penalty statue was ruled unconstitutional, effectively stopping the death penalty in our state. In 2007, New Jersey repealed its death penalty, followed by New Mexico in 2008, Illinois in 2011, and Connecticut in 2012. The West Memphis Three, perhaps the most well-known contested conviction case of the past two decades, were finally released from prison after 18 years, and their fight for full legal exoneration continues outside. Troy Davis, another death row inmate whose guilt was in gravely serious doubt, was executed in September 2011, drawing unprecedented levels of national and international attention to wrongful conviction and the death penalty. And the culture has changed: DNA evidence—in 2002 still a relatively new and cutting-edge forensic phenomenon—is now widely understood, and numerous TV shows, documentaries, and feature films about wrongful conviction (including the 2005 film version of The Exonerated) have drawn national attention.
And among this tide was an historical event in which The Exonerated was privileged to play a small part: Days before he left office, Governor George Ryan of Illinois commuted the sentences of 167 death row inmates to life in prison, effectively clearing Illinois’ death row. Back in 2000, when he declared a moratorium on executions– the event which helped spark the idea for The Exonerated—Governor Ryan also appointed a bipartisan commission to look into what was causing so many innocent people to be sent to death row. After two years, that commission identified some serious defects in Illinois’ system, which, if remedied, could at least significantly reduce the risk of executing an innocent person, recommending 85 reforms in the state’s capital punishment system. By the time Governor Ryan was set to leave office, the Legislature had enacted none of the proposed reforms. In fall 2002, Governor Ryan began to publicly consider granting blanket clemency to all prisoners on Illinois’ death row. He went through an extensive process as he weighed this decision- including public clemency hearings in 142 cases- and that December, The Exonerated became part of that process. The cast of Culture Project’s Off-Broadway production traveled to Chicago to perform the play for Governor Ryan, and he has since stated that the play was a part of his decision to commute those sentences. In making that decision, Ryan consulted with thousands of experts more knowledgeable than we are; talked to hundreds of people closer to the issue, and most of all, followed his own strong conscience. But the fact that the play was even able to be a part of the conversation was enormously humbling. As artists hoping to have a positive impact on real people’s lives, we will be forever grateful for the opportunity to participate in that dialogue. As far as we were concerned, if that evening in Chicago were the only performance the play ever had, it would have been enough.
Of course, it wasn’t the only performance—after an initial Off-Broadway run of over 600 performances, runs in London, Edinburgh and Dublin, a national tour, and countless regional, university and even high school productions—The Exonerated is back in its original home, Culture Project, in a remount of its original production, featuring much of its original cast. It is amazing to us to watch the play ten years later, in a new cultural context, where “DNA evidence” and “wrongful conviction” are now household words, where the public awareness of wrongful conviction is far more common than it was ten years ago. The play is perhaps less of a shock—but it is as much of a call to action as it ever was.
For despite those 167 commutations and 44 exonerations, despite the repeal of the death penalty in four states and its discontinuation in another, despite the growing public awareness of the horror of wrongful conviction, we still live in a country where it occurs all too frequently. 3,170 people are still on death row in this country. And many of those systemic flaws identified by the Illinois State Legislature- the ones that, if remedied, would significantly reduce (though not eliminate) the risk of an innocent person being executed- go largely unremedied, not just in Illinois but nationwide. Improper forensic science, a lack of checks and balances on prosecutorial misconduct, reliance on unqualified or severely underpaid public defenders, use of informants and “snitches” (whose testimony is notoriously unreliable), failure to properly record interrogations in murder cases—all of these continue to be epidemic in city and state criminal justice systems across America.
In our Constitution, we have a truly extraordinary blueprint for a truly just system. Unfortunately, still, in 2012, there continues to be a wide gap between the way our system was envisioned and the way it functions in the real world, with many loopholes for corruption and human error that—despite increased public awareness—remain open. We believe that it’s our responsibility as citizens—and as human beings—to look at what that means, not just systemically and politically, but for individual human lives. We believe it’s our responsibility to listen—and to keep listening—to each other’s stories, so that we understand not just “the issues,” but how they impact real human families just like our own. When we started work on The Exonerated, we were a couple young kids with the vague hope that art and storytelling could have some kind of impact on the “real world.” Now, ten years later, we know from experience that it can. When we take the time to listen to each other’s stories, to venture outside our comfort zone and engage with the stories of people we think are very different from us–we find out that they’re not, in fact, so different; that we are more connected than we think; and that it’s up to all of us, as human beings, to ensure that the society we share is truly just.