Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen’s The Exonerated tells the stories of five men and one woman who were sentenced to death in the USA for crimes they didn’t commit, and spent years living with the threat of execution before their innocence was finally proven. It’s a powerful piece of writing in any circumstances – but never more so than when one of those people is played by herself.
In this special one-off play reading of The Exonerated presented by death row legal charity Amicus, an impressive cast – including two actors from Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and two respected British barristers – was led by the incredible Sunny Jacobs. Sunny spent 17 years on death row, saw her children grow up without their parents, and lost her husband Jesse Tafero to the electric chair, before the real murderer confessed and she was (eventually) released. And yet despite all this, she radiates an astonishing positivity and a refusal to be beaten by what she went through – that, she says, is her revenge. Sunny was joined on stage by Peter Pringle, himself an exoneree who spent 15 years on death row in Ireland. The two met through their work to support exonerees, and married in 2011; both are now patrons of Amicus and make a truly inspiring couple.
Sunny’s “status” naturally made her the guest of honour for the event, which was held in the beautiful and historic Middle Temple Hall – but even so it was touching to see the respect and care shown to her by every member of the illustrious cast. It was clear throughout the evening that the actors were just as affected as the audience by the stories they were telling, and emotions ran high both during the performance and the Q&A that followed, in which several members of the cast spoke eloquently and passionately about issues surrounding the death penalty debate.
Blank and Jensen’s script is powered by an incredulous anger that cases like these can really have happened. Kerry Max Cook (Jamie Parker) was convicted on the basis of one old fingerprint, and was subjected to horrific sexual violence while in prison. Gary Gauger (Peter Pringle) was interrogated for 12 hours straight about the murder of his parents, and eventually had his words twisted by the police into a false confession. Delbert Tibbs (Chris Jarman) and Robert Hayes (Tunde Okewale MBE) were guilty of nothing more than being black. David Keaton (Leslie Thomas QC) was a frightened teenager, who confessed under duress to a crime he knew nothing about. And finally Sunny, who was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Between them, these six cases reveal a spectrum of the countless flaws in the U.S. justice system, and the terrifying reality of how easily just about anyone can be falsely accused and convicted. In addition, it explores life after death row, and the harsh truth that being released from prison is far from the end of the story.
Above all, the play – staged simply by directors Peter and Ellen Gould – helped to demonstrate why the work Amicus does is so crucial. The charity, which was founded 25 years ago in memory of Andrew Lee Jones, trains and sends British legal interns to support defence attorneys fighting death penalty cases in the USA, and has been instrumental in countless important victories. Without them, who knows how many more innocent lives would have been lost.
To find out more about the work of Amicus and future events, visit amicus-alj.org.