Review: Amicus presents The Exonerated at Middle Temple Hall

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.

Copyright: Matt Cetti-Roberts/Frontline Pictures

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.

Copyright: Matt Cetti-Roberts/Frontline Pictures

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

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Interview: Margot Ravenscroft, The Exonerated

The U.S. death penalty is a huge and controversial topic, with strong opinions on both sides. But whatever you believe, there’s one anti-death penalty argument that’s hard to dispute: what if the state executes someone who turns out to be innocent?

That, as it turns out, is not as unlikely as we might hope; in the USA today, for every nine executed, one is proven innocent. Amicus, a small charity that helps provide representation for those facing the death penalty in the USA, hopes to raise awareness of this appalling statistic, and their own vital work to help those affected, in a special one-off production of Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen’s The Exonerated on May 16th at Middle Temple Hall.

The Exonerated is an amazingly powerful play that tells the story of six real-life cases of innocent people who were sentenced to death and subsequently exonerated,” explains Margot Ravenscroft, director of Amicus. “It’s not only their story but the story of many others still on death row, and the people in their lives. Told using extracts from actual court records and their own words, it’s beautifully woven together by the writers to leave the audience with a sense of the injustices and emotional anguish suffered by these people.”

The play debuted off-Broadway in 2002, and was later adapted into a movie starring Susan Sarandon and Danny Glover. For Margot and the team at Amicus, it’s become a very personal project: “I was incredibly moved the first time I saw this play, it’s a script that stays with you for life. And now, years on having personally met and worked closely with some of the people whose story this play tells, it is a real privilege to be able to produce it to benefit Amicus, in assisting people who still today face the death penalty without a fair trial process. To produce this play is something I have had in my mind for years; the impact of theatre and particularly this play on everyone who sees it live should not be underestimated.

“It’s the personal stories that touch us – the thought that but for the hand of fate it could be us, our daughter, our son. We are forced to be in their personal thoughts, drawn in by knowing the words are actually their words – not fiction but fantastical fact. The writers’ skill in bringing together these stories to a dramatic effect mean that you are left not only moved but emotionally wiser.”

The production brings together a stellar cast, including Jamie Parker, currently playing Harry Potter in the West End, barristers Leslie Thomas QC and Tunde Okewale MBE, and death row exoneree Sunny Jacobs, who plays herself. “I really wanted to have a cast with a mixture of professional actors and a few high profile legal personalities – barristers are perhaps all frustrated actors, after all,” says Margot. “Everyone who read the script was convinced. I gave Jamie Parker the script to read, knowing what a passion for justice he had. He agreed immediately, which was wonderfully touching. All of the actors have a real interest in the injustices of the world and an empathy to some of these powerful characters. Leslie and Tunde as civil rights barristers have a natural empathy with the issues of this play and understood its importance.

This production is particularly poignant too, as Sunny Jacobs will be playing herself. If you’ve ever heard Sunny speak generally, she speaks from the heart and it’s an incredible experience to have her in this production; you almost hold your breath so as not to interrupt her. Peter Pringle, another exoneree, will be playing the part of Gary – again, this really does bring the emotion of the play to the surface. Peter and Sunny are actually also husband and wife, after finding love and a rare level of understanding not only in their shared experiences of being wrongly convicted, but also in their strength of forgiveness and positive energy that’s palpable in the words and actions. They now use that strength to run a sanctuary for exonerated prisoners in rural Ireland called the Sunny Center.

“I know that people will come away from this performance with a greater understanding of the humanity of people facing the death penalty, and that they’ll be moved by these personal and touching stories. But I hope that they’ll also leave with an understanding of the importance of human rights, and support Amicus who are working with these stories every day; these are intensely dramatic and personal tales, but they’re the stories of many, many more people that we help every day.”

Amicus was founded in 1992 by Jane Officer, in memory of Andrew Lee Jones, who was executed in Louisiana in 1991. The two had met and become friends through LifeLines, a UK-based organisation that provides support to death row inmates through letter-writing. Despite a lack of scientific evidence linking him to the crime, Andrew was convicted of murder by an all-white jury, in a trial that took less than a day. Details of his mental illness were withheld by the prosecution, vital mitigation was not presented and he was represented by an inexperienced lawyer who had never tried a capital case. Good representation could have saved Andrew’s life, but instead his death became the inspiration for Amicus.

“Today Amicus takes on a huge scope of work, supported by dedicated staff and volunteers,” Margot explains. “We provide pro bono caseworkers based in the UK; working with over a dozen different firms and more than 200 individuals we’re able to coordinate key work remotely that makes a huge difference. We also send out 30-40 U.S. based interns a year, who work directly with capital lawyers in eighteen different offices across the breadth of death penalty states.

“Our bi-annual training attracts high profile experts in the field of capital defence, and introduces UK lawyers to the key issues faced and important training in preparing a capital case. We also work on various constitutional projects in support of fair trials in capital cases. Recent success in the Supreme Court in the Bobby Moore case demonstrates what can be achieved; many dedicated Amicus volunteers made this possible. The ruling in this case will affect a great many cases involving intellectually disabled people facing the death penalty.”

The statistics surrounding innocence on death row are undoubtedly shocking – but what can we here in the UK do to help“I think that coming to see The Exonerated would be a start!” answers Margot. “Human rights abuses internationally are everyone’s responsibility; educate yourself and find out what the issues are. Support Amicus; with more support we will do much more and help many more people. We have limited resources, and rely on donations in order to do our work.”

Tickets are on sale now for this special one-off performance of The Exonerated presented by Amicus on 16th May.