Playwrights trace path from death row to freedom

Two actors crisscrossed the US talking with death-row inmates who were wrongly convicted. Their play, 'The Exonerated,' debuts off-Broadway Oct. 10.

Gary Gauger spent three years in prison for murdering his mom and dad before a group of law students uncovered his innocence and helped free him. He had been sentenced to die.

Mr. Gauger had discovered his parents murdered on their farm in northern Illinois in 1993. He was quickly arrested.

After 20 hours of grueling police interrogation, "I finally volunteered to give what they call a 'vision statement,' a hypothetical account of what I would have done if I had killed my parents," Gauger says. That statement was later used out of context as a confession, and he was convicted.

Stories like Gauger's were so moving to actors Erik Jensen and Jessica Blank, that they decided to write a play.

So they picked up the phone and interviewed 40 people who had been exonerated to gather ideas. Then, with an atlas, a little seed money, and their dog, Zooey, they hit the road to meet them face to face.

More than two years after their journey began, "The Exonerated," based on the stories they gathered, will debut off-Broadway Oct. 10. Starring Richard Dreyfuss and Jill Clayburgh, it follows six wrongfully convicted death-row inmates through arrest, imprisonment, and then readjustment to life on the outside.

Mr. Dreyfuss plays Kerry Cook, a Texas man who spent 21 years on death row for murdering a woman. Prosecutors said he killed her because he was homosexual (he isn't). DNA evidence finally cleared him. "I wasn't a street thug," Mr. Cook says. "I came from a good family. If it can happen to me, man, it can happen to anyone."

Ms. Clayburgh acts out the story of Sunny Jacobs. Sunny and her common-law husband were convicted of murdering two police officers in Florida. The true killer later confessed. But while Sunny was released 16 years later, exoneration came too late for her husband. He was sent to the electric chair. When the chair malfunctioned, his case drew global attention, and Florida later abandoned that method of execution.

Miscarriage of justice has been an enduring subject of fiction – from Jean Valjean in "Les Misérables" to Richard Kimble in "The Fugitive." The intersection of one individual with the vast, sometimes inhuman, power of the legal system creates its own drama. What makes the stories in "The Exonerated" noteworthy, beyond the inherent horror of an innocent person being sentenced to die, is that every word of dialogue comes from interviews with their real-life counterparts. Court and police transcripts provide other material.

Using money from credit cards, friends, and small grants, Mr. Jensen and Ms. Blank started their road trip. They logged 6,500 miles over two months, crisscrossing the country from New York to Illinois, Texas to Florida, often sleeping in their car to save money.

They would conduct an interview with someone who had been exonerated, send the tapes overnight to interns in New York to transcribe, and then quickly drive to the next appointment, Jensen says.

"We had one of those big Rand McNally atlases taped up to the side door of the car," he says. "Most of the people lived two or three hours off the nearest highway, on roads with names like Gristle Gulch."

When they returned to New York, there were hundreds of interview pages waiting for them. "We ... [worked] with our actor friends to 'workshop' the material and edit it down," Blank says.

Jensen and Blank oppose the death penalty for reasons ranging from the practical (the inevitability of human error) to the moral. The play reflects their political views. But as dramatists, they say it is critical to let the material speak for itself. The play is simply staged, with actors speaking monologues from stools. At some points, the spotlight moves to actors who play lawyers, police officers, and spouses – their lines taken from public records.

"We're only really interested in eliciting a dialogue," Jensen says. "Justice Thurgood Marshall said the question isn't whether or not the public supports the death penalty. The question is whether the public would support the death penalty, given the information available. That drove us through writing the play."

Jensen asked Bob Balaban, producer of "Gosford Park," to direct the play. Mr. Balaban said there was "something really important about it for what it had to say, but also theatrically very, very exciting because every word in this thing is real."

Balaban encouraged the playwrights to fine-tune their material. "Instead of just having people say 'I'm Gary Gauger, this is what happened, this is how I felt,' I wanted [them] to go back to the courts and dig up testimony," he says. "This beautiful spell gets woven by the cast as they tell these stories and then, as in story theater, they start acting out their trial in front of you."

In the end, Jensen and Blank say the message of "The Exonerated" transcends horror and injustice. "Their stories have so much to teach us – not just about the ... death penalty – but also about humanity, about strength, about how you learn to survive, about courage," Blank says.

Jacobs wanted the story of her exoneration and her husband's wrongful execution to be told "so that [people will] say, 'I once heard this woman, and she didn't let them stop her ... and if that little woman person can do it, then I can do it.' And that's my revenge."

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