Forum examines flawed justice


He woke up every morning in a prison cell, fully aware that he was living on borrowed time. He wanted to beg, wanted to convince anyone of his innocence, but no one listened to criminals. No one listened to the condemned. It terrified him, but he knew it was only a matter of time: he was going to be executed for a crime he didn’t commit.

This was the sort of scenario discussed in the forum hosted by Florida A&M’s Essential Theater and pre-professional law program Tuesday morning.

Panelists discussed death row and the people on it, specifically the possibility that some of those individuals might be innocent. Other issues were addressed, such as the justice system’s shortcomings and the obstacles facing public defenders and the individuals who rely on them. Topics varied widely and discussion flowed rapidly from point to point as audience members posed questions and statements for the panelists to respond to. It was a discussion-based affair designed to be as interactive as possible.

The forum was aptly dubbed “Exonerated from Death Row.”

“[It is supposed to] bring awareness of the challenge, the problems with wrongful convictions, and how individuals who are innocent go to death row … and some die,” said Valencia Matthews, director of theatre at FAMU, who played a key role in organizing the event. “[We wanted] to shed light on the ones that are in the community that were exonerated.”

A number of students were moved by the speakers, suggesting that this goal had been at least partially achieved.

“I expected to hear both positives and negatives about the justice system … and about the people who have been exonerated and their plight with readjusting with the outside world after being in jail for so long,” said Ebony O’Neal, 25, a fourth-year theater education student from Fort Lauderdale. “My expectations have definitely been met.”

“It was very interesting,” added Tallahassee native Raven Otway, an 18–year-old first-year pre-pharmacy student. “What they were talking about was a very serious topic. It surprised me how unjust certain things in the law system are.”

One panelist was David Keaton, a Quincy man exonerated from death row.

Keaton is also one of the individuals portrayed in Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen’s play, “The Exonerated,” which will be Essence Theater’s first production of the year.

“The Exonerated” tells the story of six vastly different Americans brought together by their shared plight as prisoners on death row, all convicted for crimes they didn’t commit.     

The play will run Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., with a matinee on Saturday at 2 p.m., and a matinee on Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets will be $12 for adults, $9 for seniors, $7 for children and students, and free for FAMU students with valid IDs.

Discounted previews will be held on Wednesday and Thursday at 8 p.m., with $5 general admission.

“I really think that anyone who sees this play will be inspired to do something,” said Matthews. “I think this play can do that for people. You come see it, you will laugh, you will cry a little bit, you’ll be sad, you’ll be stunned, you’ll be all of that. But, hopefully when you leave the theater, you’ll want to do something about it.”