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U alum Jessica Blank and husband Erik Jensen.

The Exonerated authors Jessica Blank and Eric Jensen interviewed 40 former death row prisoners who spent from 2 to 22 years in prison and were subsequently found innocent and freed by the state.

The Exonerated' : critically acclaimed play by U alum examines the death penalt

Critically acclaimed play by U alum examines the death penalty

By Ann Freeman

What does it feel like to be wrongly convicted of a crime and sent to death row? To "lose" years of your life? What happens to those who are exonerated? What is our obligation to assure that "justice for all" is justice for all?

CLA graduate Jessica Blank and husband Eric Jensen explore these questions in The Exonerated, their critically acclaimed play.

The seeds for The Exonerated were sewn after Blank moved from Minneapolis to New York. Blank and Jensen attended a conference about the death penalty and heard first-hand accounts of individuals convicted based on confessions obtained by police torture. Blank and Jenson realized that more people needed to hear the stories of those who had been wrongfully found guilty and sentenced to death.

During the summer of 2000, the couple (they are now married) traveled the country talking to "the exonerated"--those proven innocent who were once found guilty--and combing through court records. Much of the dialogue in the play comes directly from transcripts and interviews.

Originally produced in New York in 2002, The Exonerated ended its national tour in Minneapolis. It has received numerous awards from both the theater and social justice communities, including a Champion of Justice Award from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

The play chronicles the experiences of six innocent people who spent from 2 to 22 years on death row and were eventually exonerated--often thanks to an attorney who took on their case pro bono, or dedicated law school students who wanted to right a wrong. The stories take us straight into the heart of darkness.

Kerry Max Cook spent 22 years on death row in Texas because his fingerprint was found on the doorframe of a murdered woman-even though there was overwhelming evidence that implicated the woman's boyfriend. Cook survived extreme prison brutality and violence, and was finally freed after a two-year court battle led by a professor and team of law students from Northwestern University.

Sunny Jacobs, the first woman in the U.S. to be sentenced to death, spent 16 years on death row in Florida after she and her common-law husband, Jesse, were convicted in 1976 of killing two policemen. Their conviction was based on testimony from a career criminal who had agreed to testify against Sunny and Jesse in order to get immunity from the death penalty. In 1979, he recanted his story but the prosecutors ignored his confession and Sunny and Jesse remained on death row. Eleven years after he confessed, Jesse was executed, and two years later Sunny was exonerated.

Blank says creating this work opened her eyes to "the incredible gap that exists between how the criminal justice system is laid out in the Constitution and how it actually works, especially for poor people. We interviewed people from very diverse lives, but the common thread was that they were all poor. We saw how vulnerable poor people are to wrongful convictions."

Blank believes theater is a powerful medium for raising awareness and inspiring action for social change because of the immediacy of the medium. "I think it goes back to storytelling," she says. "When people hear the stories of people different from themselves, they can relate in a way that is deeper and more to the heart. We hope our audiences come out asking questions about what kind of society we have, what kind of society we want to have, and what we can do to make it change."

INFO BOX: You can purchase the The Exonerated for production from the Dramatists Play Service.