In a week when the Governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger once again denied clemency for a Death Row prisoner, Michael Morales, despite new evidence that order for his execution was based on the perjured evidence of a jailhouse informant who had said that he had boasted of the crime with him and admitted to having planned it, yet had done so in a language – Spanish – that Morales doesn’t actually speak, the extreme and uncomfortable limits of the very final and irrevocable kind of justice that is being meted in a supposedly civilised country like America are once again revealed. (Morales was subsequently spared for now, just two hours before his scheduled execution last Tuesday, by a separate debate over the procedures being used for lethal injections and the amount of unknown suffering that may be caused in the process).
Hearing in The Exonerated – Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen’s play constructed out of the stories of six innocent people who spent time on Death Row in America’s prisons, out of some 122 people exonerated since 1973 – of the botched death by electric chair of an innocent man Jesse Tafero, that took thirteen-and-a-half minutes to kill him with flames shooting from his head and smoke coming from his ears, would be the most shocking moment here, were it not for the chastening, deeply human testimony of his co-accused partner Sunny Jacobs, who survived to be set free – after losing her husband and 16 years of her own life behind bars – when the man who actually committed the murder they were convicted for later confessed.
On the London first night of this production, previously seen at last year’s Edinburgh Festival, Sunny was present, and her own personal curtain speech – thanking the cast (that included Stockard Channing playing her that night) for carrying the message of their stories, but testifying to now filling her life with peace and love rather than a mission for revenge – was the most humbling and poignant thing of all.
In what is a deeply personal show, it showed that even if the state is still capable of being sometimes catastrophically unforgiving, the human capacity for forgiveness still shines bright; and this stunningly simple yet amazingly effective production – staged by American actor Bob Balaban – provides a tapestry of testimonials, based on court documents, depositions, transcripts and interviews – that are organised into a narrative of extraordinary dramatic power.
And yet it’s accomplished by the leanest of theatrical means: there’s no set design at all, nor much in the way of physical action. With just a row of ten stools for the rotating teams of actors to be seated at, with lecture lecterns in front of them to hold the scripts that they read from, the unstinting starkness of the presentation created both a dark, sharp focus to it and cultivated a devastating intensity.
You will not easily forget the story of a man convicted of murdering his parents who was later acquitted when two members of a motorcycle gang were found guilty instead. Yet even though a videotaped confession was got out of one of them in 1995, the son wasn’t released until the following year, and the whole year inbetween the authorities continued to fight against his appeal. There are four more stories like that, amongst many others that could be told here; and if there were ever a more persuasive argument against the death penalty to be had, then I’ve not heard it.
- Mark Shenton The Exonerated