Play exposes flaws in justice system

With more than a half an hour before the curtain call, the newly renovated Charles Winter Wood Theatre in Tucker Hall, was just about filled with a mix of students, professors and members of the Tallahassee community.

The audience was anxiously anticipating the premiere of Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen’s play “The Exonerated.”

“The Exonerated” is the first of six productions scheduled for the 2010-2011 Florida A&M University Essential Theatre season.

“I am expecting greatness because that is what FAMU presents: greatness,” said Keyandra Berry, 20, third-year political science student from Miramar.

“The Exonerated” exposes the stories of six real individuals who were convicted and sentenced to death row for crimes that each did not commit.

The experiences shared include Gary Gauger, a humble farmer convicted of murdering both of his parents and Robert Earl Hayes, a horse groomer convicted of murdering a white woman.

Also highlighted were Kerry Max Cook, a Texas native convicted of murdering a woman whom he had met once three months prior to being accused; David Keaton, a young-adult convicted of a robbery that led to a murder; Sonya “Sunny” Jacobs, a mother and wife convicted of murdering two police officers and Delbert Tibbs, a poet convicted of raping and murdering a white woman.

In telling these stories, “The Exonerated” exposes flaws in the United States judicial system, which often creates devastation in the lives of unsuspecting and innocent people.

“The Exonerated is a very moving piece because it is telling the stories of people and the people are true,” said Valencia Matthews, director of the Florida A&M University Essential Theatre productions.

Matthews earned her undergraduate degree at South Carolina State University and then attended graduate school at Ohio State University and Florida State University.

“Dr. Matthews is the director that I’ve always wanted to work with,” said Keith Oliver, 22, fourth-year theatre student from Miami who played the role of Robert Hayes.

“It was definitely a pleasure because she asks a lot but she also gives a lot. She has given me the best advice I’ve ever been given, and she is a very hands-on director.”

The play moved through each narrative piece by piece, sharing insight into each of the defendants’ stories as to how they were committed to death row. There were also small breaks with poetic verse by Delbert Tibbs.

“I’ve been here throughout the rehearsal process so I saw them build from the beginning. I think that they’ve done an outstanding job with communicating who the characters are through terrible experiences that we could probably never imagine,” said, Karla Johnson, 45, an education professor at FAMU.

The central theme of “The Exonerated” is to raise awareness of the wrongly convicted people who have been jailed and sentenced to death.

Oliver said since 1973, there have been 683 executions. Of those 683, 138 have been exonerated. Twenty-three of the 138 exonerated people live in Florida.

“We are compelled as citizens of the U.S. to be a part of the process so the criminal justice system can be held accountable for what it does because it is “us and when people can be wrongly convicted and then sentenced to death row, we have a problem,” said Matthews.

“I am hoping that people will be compelled to do something and be more aware of these wrong convictions.”