All Things Entertaining and Cultural
When Ryan Ferguson was released from a Missouri prison in November after spending almost 10 years locked up for a murder he did not commit and for which there was no substantive evidence of his guilt, attention focused for a time on how an innocent man could be held for so long for such a serious charge.
Ferguson was lucky. His father went on an unflagging campaign to prove there was no way Ryan could be responsible for the death he was in jail for causing. Without the support of his family, an attorney who fights to secure the release of the innocent, a base of people who followed his case, and a Missouri judge who saw reason in the Fergusons’ appeal, Ryan could have served his entire 40 year sentence.
The Ferguson case spotlighted numerous flaws in the American criminal justice system. Mostly, it showed the alacrity of the police to find a culprit even if the facts don’t support their suspicions, the enthusiasm with which a prosecutor will pursue a case he or she should know has no merit, the stubbornness of authorities in admitting they are wrong, and the slowness in which miscarriage of justice is corrected.
No doubt, many a police officer, detective, or prosecutor is to be thanked for capturing genuine predators and placing them where they can do harm to the general public. These cases certainly outnumber situations like Ferguson’s. Yet misjudgment, false accusation, false witness, police coercion, prosecutorial grandstanding, and railroading occur frequently enough for the criminal justice system to come under examination.
The 30 additional years Ryan Ferguson may have had to spend behind bars pales next to the time he served while knowing he took no person’s life. Think if Ryan had been sentenced to death. And think if his execution was carried out before his innocence was recognized by the Missouri judge who overturned his case and recommended no new trial.
That is the plight faced by six characters in Jessica Blank and Eric Jensen’s documentary-like play, “The Exonerated,” now at Wilmington’s Delaware Theatre Company.
Various circumstances put these half dozen people on police radar. Fair or unfair, logical or illogical, the five men and one woman in Blank and Jensen’s play spent significant time on death row for crimes they did not commit and, in most of their cases, was there they could or would not committed, some up to 20 years. Their good fortune was even in states that regularly execute death sentences, like Florida and Texas, they were never scheduled to go to the electric chair or to undergo lethal injection. The husband of Sunny, the woman depicted in “The Exonerated” was put to death is a famous incident in which the Florida electric chair malfunctioned, and he lived for 17 minutes as three charges of deadly current were sent through his body.
Whatever the circumstances of the crimes chronicled, some malfeasance that went beyond honest mistakes and more towards careless or willful ignorance of evidence occurred and continues to occur, putting the lives of the innocent at risk. As one of the characters says, once the police have you in handcuffs and lock you in a cell, they’ve demonstrated the power they can have over you. The problem comes when suspicions or surmises are consistent with fact or justice.
“The Exonerated” makes this clear. The characters, who represent six actual people who endured the unjust punishment described on the DTC stage, all talk about their questioning by the police, their arrests, their trials, and the compelling reasons why they should have been acquitted of all charges against them.
Sunny and her unfortunate husband were present when a friend of the husband killed two police officers attempting to take him in on a fugitive warrant. The perpetrator, familiar with the criminal justice system, negotiated a plea bargain with prosecutors and implicated Sunny and her husband, even saying Sunny pulled the trigger. Her arrest, conviction, and death sentence show the folly of incarcerating everyone at a scene when only one is guilty of violence.
Sunny’s case also shows how difficult it is to fight a bogus charge when you can’t afford an attorney and are at the mercy of a public defender, who, for the most part, works for the state and often has the state’s interest at heart more than his or her client’s.
Delbert, another character, looked nothing the perpetrator described at the crime scene to which he would be linked, but he was black, and that was close enough for the Florida prosecutors. David was a bystander at the scene where a robbery and killing of a clerk occurred. Kerry was convicted based on his past record of petty offenses and because of a fingerprint on the molding on the door of an apartment where a woman he spent one night with was murdered by someone most people knew was guilty, as was later proven. The actual killer was a respected university professor who was never tried even after Kerry was exonerated and released. Gary is accused of killing his parents, for whom he cared and with whom he worked. Robert is another who is railroaded on circumstantial evidence.
DNA, confessions, and investigative work spared these people the fate of Sunny’s husband, but via their stories “The Exonerated” indicts a system that allows injustice to occurs and protects authorities even when the police, prosecutors, and even judges know evidence is sketchy and a conviction runs contrary to law and justice.
As a reporter, I have seen some of the complaints the condemned from “The Exonerated” as practiced. No system is perfect, but one would hope a system that takes a life for a life or has the power to send someone to jail for 40 years would be as careful and meticulous as possible. “The Exonerated” shows we in the public cannot be proud or approving of everything authorities do in our name.
Once again, the police and prosecutors are more often than not to be thanked for sparing society from violent offenders, but the exceptions highlighted by “The Exonerated” and Ryan Ferguson’s ordeal are testimony the flaws that exist in the criminal justice system today are too common, sloppy, self-serving, and self-righteous to be tolerated.
So much for my editorial. Now to “The Exonerated” and David Bradley’s production for DTC.
One cannot help but sympathize, and perhaps even empathize, with the people who were innocent of crime but in jeopardy of losing their lives and kept in cages for decades, at times for years after prosecutors were assured of the innocence. (Evidence could have overturned Sunny’s case in 1979, but she was in prison, on death row, until 1992.)
The stories the characters in “The Exonerated” tell are harrowing, angering, but thought-provoking.
They are also pat.
As compelling as the material Blank and Jensen collected can be, as plaintive and sincere as the performances of the DTC actors are, “The Exonerated” has a tone of preaching to the converted. At 100 minutes or so, it goes on longer than its welcome. Whatever we know in about the first 45 minutes is enough to trigger our outrage and get the point. A moment comes when a person is telling a poignant part of his or her story and we want them to go quicker because we, the audience, are satisfied we know the merits of the case and are already on the side of the victim, the falsely sentenced.
Impatience takes over in particular when “The Exonerated” reaches a point when it’s time to stop hearing about individual cases and learn how these lucky innocent people were freed.
One problem with the DTC production is characters change, but the speed, tone, and rhythm of their speech remains the same. All of the characters are quiet and deliberate in the telling of their stories. Megan Bellwoar has some strong physical moments as Sunny. Anthony Lawton animates his storytelling as Kerry, the man who is convicted of murder based on a fingerprint. Lawton is particularly emotional when the tells how his older brother was killed while Kerry sat on death row.
The stories don’t bore. The pace of the production does. It’s too much of the same. The documentary style that seemed to work a decade ago doesn’t have the same impact today. More characterization would help. Since all of the actors were so similar in their approach to their material, Bradley must have asked them to let the prisoners’ stories be the play. I think “The Exonerated” needed more. The characters’ stories are all of a kind. Some more attempts at strong personality may have helped the production have some life. It’s as if all the characters were in victim mode instead of being people who wanted you to know the injustice that happened to them and how angry or sick or despondent they were about it. You know what each characters says he or she feels, but except for Bellwoar, Lawton, and the actor who puts the most life into his character’s speeches, David Alan Anderson, you don’t see them feeling it. The moment in the show that gave me the most emotional rise, triggered the most anger in me was Aimé Donna Kelly overruling worthy objections from a defense attorney while playing a stoic judge who seemed to be in cahoots with the railroaders working to convict Gary. It’s why I always say anyone who doesn’t enter a court with some mistrust or contempt is crazy. I also felt strong disdain for authority when Robert, played earnestly by Akeem Davis, says post-prison he was legally prohibited from getting a license to go back to his profession, training and grooming horses, but, irony of ironies, was cleared to purchase a gun since his conviction was vacated. Our legislators at work, folks! Individual stories raised salient points, but I was thinking after leaving “The Exonerated” that it may be more powerful to take one story and dramatize it from beginning to end, including the lead meeting other survivors of false imprisonment, than to deal with a group.
I want to make it clear that no one in “The Exonerated” cast failed to make his or her character’s case or lowered the pace and tone of the production. It was up to Bradley to give his production dramatic texture and to create the highs and lows that would have kept the audience engrossed rather than involved because it’s only polite to be and because the stories tug at one’s heart.
I was happy to see Frank X and William Zielinski, who have been comparatively absent from productions during the last year back on stage. In a variety of small parts Dan Hodge and Tom Byrn do a fine job. In ways, their varied roles give them the most to do and more chances to stand out than the actors portraying the innocent who were blessedly spared the ultimate penalty. Alison Roberts did a fine job with costumes. Mike Hahn’s sound design gave texture to some scenes, particularly his effect of a cell door slamming shut.
As Bellwoar said in a post-play speech, injustice continues. Ryan Ferguson is working to help free innocent people lingering in jails. DTC is collecting funds for an organization founded by “Exonerated” authors Blank and Jensen to help those who needlessly served time in prison get a fresh start in life. As Bellwoar pointed out, many are not compensated for the years they spent in jail, and several states prohibit by law suits against errant cops or prosecutors. The issue “The Exonerated” addresses will not fade quickly. The DTC production of it may have been more pat than powerful, but it does have, as you can tell by reading, some reflective effect and brings what authorities do in the public’s name to light, and that is important.
“The Exonerated” runs through Sunday, March 9 at the Delaware Theatre Company, 200 Water Street (adjacent to the Riverfront Market), in Wilmington, Del. Showtimes are7 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday. Following the 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 27 show, Kerry Max Cook, the character played by Tony Lawton, will appear in a “Talkback.” Another who was exonerated will speak after the 7 p.m. Thursday, March 6 performance. Tickets range from $50 to $35 and can be obtained by calling 302-594-1100 or going online to www.delawaretheatre.org.