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.

Review: The Exonerated at Questors Theatre

A few weeks ago, I heard an unforgettable talk by Anthony Ray Hinton, who has the dubious honour of being the 152nd person to be exonerated from America’s death row since 1976 (incidentally, since he was released last year the number’s increased to 156). Despite spending nearly 30 years locked up for a crime he didn’t commit, and never receiving any kind of apology, what struck me most about Ray was his astonishing lack of bitterness or hatred towards the people who’d put him there.

At that same conference, an announcement was made about the upcoming production at Questors Theatre of Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen’s The Exonerated. First performed in 2002, the play documents the stories – in their own words – of six exonerated death row prisoners: Delbert Tibbs (Zac Sargusingh), David Keaton (Wayil Eisa), Gary Gauger (Mike Hadjipateras), Kerry Max Cook (Mark Redrup), Sunny Jacobs (Wendy Megeney) and Robert Earl Hayes (Jason Welch).

Although these stories vary in their details, there are several common themes: forced confessions; racism; unreliable witnesses; incompetent lawyers. Most of the speakers were only tangentially connected to the victim; just one was even there when the crime was committed. And yet all six found themselves facing the ultimate penalty for something they didn’t do, while a society looked on and called it justice.

Photo credit: Peter Collins
Photo credit: Peter Collins
Blank and Jensen travelled the country to collect interviews with the six exonerees, and it’s excerpts from these interviews along with court transcripts that make up the play’s script. As the spotlight falls on each of them, the five men and one woman take turns revealing their stories through a mix of monologue and dialogue, while the four actors of the male and female ensemble – who fill in all the remaining parts, including lawyers, cops, judges and spouses – silently patrol the edges of the set. This simple but highly effective touch from director Peter Gould brings home the idea that while they may now be free, the six will always, to a certain degree, be in prison.

Following in the footsteps of big Hollywood names including Brian Dennehy, Danny Glover and Susan Sarandon, the Questors cast prove more than equal to the challenge of bringing real people to life on stage – their goal not to imitate their subjects, but to capture the spirit that helped each of them survive an ordeal most of us can only imagine. There’s Delbert, the softly spoken poet; Sunny, whose sense of humour and creativity kept her going through the worst kind of horror; David, the confused teenager who had to fight to retain his faith in God… And despite everything, each of the actors ultimately radiates that same sense of peace and forgiveness we heard from Ray Hinton – not for the sake of those who got it wrong, but for the sanity of those who suffered the consequences.

Photo credit: Peter Collins
Photo credit: Peter Collins
Needless to say, The Exonerated is not a particularly easy show to watch. There are details that make us audibly gasp in shock, or shake our heads in disbelief that such a thing could possibly be allowed to happen once, let alone six (or 156) times. The anger so noticeably absent from the men and women on stage is not as easily subdued in their audience; whatever your opinion regarding the death penalty in principle, surely a justice system so flawed it can send innocent people to the execution chamber must be stopped.

The Exonerated is a heartfelt production of a hugely powerful piece of theatre. The writers’ goal was to reveal the human stories behind the statistics, but in doing so the play also exposes the failings of a system that it’s difficult to believe still exists in the 21st century. It shocks, educates and enrages – and I urge you to see it if you can.

* The conference where I heard Anthony Ray Hinton speak was organised by LifeLines, a UK-based organisation who support death row prisoners through letter writing.

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