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Even big-name stars can't overpower the stories of exonerated death row inmates

Wednesday, Dec 10 2003
Albert Camus' father was in favor of the death penalty until he saw it happen. In "Reflections on the Guillotine," Camus famously described his father leaving home to watch a horrible killer lose his head. When Camus père came back, he vomited. Some response like that is what the creators of The Exonerated are after. The new docudrama at the Curran Theatre about six people who sat without good cause on death row in the United States is the most powerful statement against capital punishment to come along since Sister Helen Prejean's Dead Man Walking. (And Prejean was dubbed the most powerful anti-death penalty advocate since Albert Camus.) It's also a fund-raiser.

Ten actors sit on stools, in a row, onstage. They tell interwoven stories in the words of the exonerated ex-prisoners, Laramie Project-style. Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen interviewed a total of 40 people released from death row in the years before 2000 (when the pair wrote the piece). They concentrated on six cases, and brought extra material into the script from police reports and court records. So nothing in the script is fictional, or almost nothing. Since the actors don't move around or wear costumes but sometimes play double roles, the stories can be hard to follow; still, each travesty of justice, in the end, is terrifying. "If it can happen to me," says Kerry Max Cook, the man convicted of a rape and murder when he was a hip young Texas bartender in 1976, "it can happen to anyone."

Cook had the sorry luck to have drinks with a woman named Linda Jo Edwards five days before she was raped and killed. The murder has since been linked through DNA evidence to her boyfriend, a dean of library sciences named "Professor Whitfield" in the play. Cook lacked money for a lawyer, and found himself on death row after a five-day trial. He spent 20 years trying to appeal. Meanwhile, other inmates raped him and carved "Good Pussy" on his buttocks (leaving a permanent scar), as "Professor Whitfield" joined the local sheriff's department. Cook was exonerated in 1999, without apology. "Whitfield" has never been accused.

Robin Williams played Cook in the first week of the run. You'd expect his presence to overwhelm the production, but it didn't; he was gentle, precise, and understated. It helped that the rest of the cast -- especially Amanda Plummer and David Brown Jr. -- was so powerful, but Williams deserves credit for modesty. He and Plummer are two of the revolving celebrities in The Exonerated. Brian Dennehy, Stockard Channing, Montel Williams, and a few others will also move in and out as marquee attractions for the show. This gimmick gives The Exonerated an uncomfortable tone of radical Broadway chic, of big stars nipping in to do something good -- afterward they even ask for donations to charity -- but Williams and Plummer are team players, and their talents only enhance the stories.

Three ex-prisoners here are black. They made the simple mistake of being the wrong color when cops needed someone to blame. David Brown Jr. does terrific work as Robert Earl Hayes, convicted of raping and killing a white woman who died with a white man's hair in her hand. Hayes worked with the woman at a Florida horse track, and even made a pass at her before the murder. But he was convicted on faulty tests. When the Florida Supreme Court ordered new ones, Hayes was exonerated.

His portrayal in The Exonerated infuriates Florida detectives and prosecutors who believe the real man is less than innocent as a human being. He went to jail again in October, for example, on another rape-murder charge. Whether Hayes is guilty in the new case or not, though, The Exonerated shows that the shoddy cop habit of trying to nail people officers "know" are guilty for crimes they didn't commit extends even to death row, where police work should be more careful. And that's horrifying. To me it's the prime argument against the death penalty -- and it's the whole point of this play.

The best-known case in The Exonerated is also the most graphic and disgusting. Sunny Jacobs and her lover, Jesse Tafero, went to jail for killing two cops in Florida. The real killer was a parole violator named Walter Rhodes, who knew how to work the legal system. On Rhodes' testimony Jacobs and Tafero went to death row, although three years later -- in 1979 -- Rhodes gave a full confession. Tafero still died in the electric chair in a famously botched execution in 1990. Smoke came out of his ears, and he failed to die after the first jolt of electricity. Amanda Plummer, as Jacobs, tells this story in the cool, disarmingly charming voice of a normal mother who has been not quite hardened by jail. Jacobs was separated from her kids from 1976 until 1992, when the Florida courts decided, at last, that she was innocent.

It may not be the same as witnessing a man die in a state-run chair -- or under a guillotine -- and in that sense The Exonerated stands a step or two removed from real life. But it is enough to make you vomit.


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