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Wednesday, January 25,2012

Theater with a mission

'The Exonerated' exposes the price we pay when the justice system fails

by Robert Sancrainte

Years ago, an acquaintance of Kristine Thatcher was wrongfully placed on death row in Florida for the murder of a woman. Thatcher went to court to testify on his behalf. After dealing with the anguish of seeing someone she knew mistreated by the justice system, Thatcher decided to do what she could to publicize how death penalty cases have been mismanaged over the years.

That was when the Stormfield Theatre founder discovered “The Exonerated” and its two writers, Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, who came up with the idea for the production while attending a conference on the death penalty at Columbia University more than a decade ago.

This weekend, Thatcher is directing two staged readings of the play, which chronicles the true stories of six inmates put on death row for crimes they did not commit.

“It really shows the flaws in our justice system,” Thatcher says of the Stages of the Law production. “The play is a testament to the barbarousness of the death penalty.” 

Each of the vignettes outlines a tragic example of judicial miscarriage. One man was convicted after police officers coerced a false confession from him during a lengthy interrogation, then later based the conviction partly on that confession. In another case, a woman was convicted after her boyfriend — who later confessed to the crime — framed her in order to cut an immunity deal with prosecutors.

In a particularly shocking vignette, attorneys accuse one man of being a homosexual; after he is sentenced to prison, he is viciously abused by other inmates.

“The actors just tell their stories as simply as possible,” Thatcher says.

For the real-life people whose stories inspired the show, it has been very difficult to rebuild their lives after the years spent in prison prior to their exoneration.

“It’s very difficult for a person released from prison, even if they have not committed the crime they were convicted for, to start their lives again, and to find employment,” Thatcher says. “So one of the things (the cast) will do is that at the end of the show they’ll pass the hat through the audience and take up collections for these six people."

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