The Exonerated

It ironic that Tuesday the citizens of California voted no to an end to the death penalty, and tonight Gail and I saw a play that would convince anyone to vote yes to its eradication.

There are almost 300 people who have been exonerated after being sentenced to death, and who knows how many more innocents are still sitting on death row.

Police need to close cases.  Prosecutors need to keep their statistics up.  The system is skewed in favor of the state and against the poor, the uneducated, the politically powerless.  Innocent people get railroaded, and sometimes they get lucky enough to get freed, many years down the road.

The Exonerated is the true life stories of 6 of these people; their actual words brought to life onstage by a group of 10 talented actors simply sitting on stools.  A couple of the parts are played by a rotating list of “name” actors: tonight we saw Carol Kane and Keir Dullea.  There were only about 40 people in the audience, I doubt that there is much money in this for anyone.  It is presented at the Culture Project, a very very off Broadway theater you can hardly find.

Gail picked this play from the pages of the New Yorker because she has always been so much more in favor of the death penalty than I am–and I’m really only opposed because of this specific issue.  Conceptually, I have no issue with executing a murderer, but I’m not proud to be part of a society that executes the innocent.  Life without parole works just fine as far as I’m concerned,  there is time to rectify the errors of the police and the prosecution.

I think, after hearing the heartbreaking story of Sonny Jacobs, who spent 16 years on death row for a crime she didn’t commit, whose husband was executed for the crime he didn’t commit, that Gail may be coming around to my point of view.

The Exonerated is a tough play to watch.  A confused young man is bullied and badgered into making a “vision statement” of what it would have been like if he had killed his parents, and then that statement is used as a confession.  Of course, they didn’t give him a lawyer, they said he didn’t have the right for a defense.

One of the men, Delbert Tibbs [played by Joe Morton] says “If you’re charged with a sex crime, and you’re black, in the South, you better have done it ’cause they’re gonna hang your ass anyway”.

Sonny Jacobs says “Think of the period from 1976 to 1992.  Now imagine that it is just gone.  Never happened.  That’s what happened to me”.

Too bad not everyone in California saw this play before last Tuesday.  Even as I was writing this, I saw something on Facebook, another man finally freed, this time after close to 40 years in prison framed for a crime he did not commit.  

A man who spent almost four decades in prison for killing two people in theArizona desert today pleaded no contest to two counts of second-degree murder and will go free.

Bill Macumber entered a plea in Maricopa County Superior Courtunder an agreement with prosecutors and received a sentence of time served. Although the victims’ family asked Judge Bruce Cohen to deny his request, prosecutors said they couldn’t pursue a third trial because key evidence had been destroyed or lost.

Notice that they made him plead guilty to something so the state can save face.

Remember that last May, while the Governor of Texas was futilely chasing the presidency, he had to look tough on crime.  So tough that he executed an innocent man:

Carlos DeLuna maintained his innocence from the moment he was arrested in 1983 for the stabbing death of a young Texas woman right up until he was executed six years later. On Monday, a Columbia University professor and a group of law students offered what appears to be definitive proof that DeLuna’s mistaken-identity claims were the real deal and that an innocent man was put to death.

The Guardian explains how DeLuna, a 20-year-old eighth-grade dropout at the time of his arrest, told authorities that not only was he not Wanda Lopez’s killer, but that he knew the man who was: Carlos Hernandez, a notorious criminal who shared Deluna’s first name and looked so much like him that the two were frequently mistaken for twins. The prosecution, however, successfully argued that they searched for this elusive Hernandez without success, and that DeLuna had simply made him up.

This problem is real and ongoing.  Politicians feel the need to appear “tough on crime”, even in the face of exculpatory evidence.  Cops and prosecutors have their egos to maintain and their stats to keep up.  Nobody gets a prize for not convicting an innocent man.  Even the exonerated get little or no compensation.  One of the subject of the play, Robert Hayes, was unable to get a license to train horses after he was released because he had been in prison.

The US executes more people than any other country except Iran and China.  That isn’t a statistic to be proud of.


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