According to the Innocence Project, 300 people have been released from prison thanks to DNA evidence, including 18 death row inmates. In 2002, after conducting extensive interviews with people released from death row, Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen wrote the “documentary play” The Exonerated. The play, which follows six former prisoners as they try to put their lives back together, consists of excerpts from interviews and trial transcripts. In October, Reason TV producer Anthony L. Fisher sat down with Blank and Jensen to discuss the award-winning play. Go to reason.com for the complete interview.
reason: It’s been 10 years since the first staging of the play, and there’s been a TV movie based on it. What do you think the play’s cultural impact has been?
Blank: We started working on the play when the idea of wrongful conviction was just entering the Zeitgeist. The death penalty was in the news because George W. Bush was running for president for the first time and had overseen more executions under his watch as governor [of Texas] than all of the other governors in all of the states in the United States combined since the reinstatement of the death penalty in the early ’70s. It was actually just the beginning of a national conversation about the issue, and the play, incredibly, became a part of that conversation. It was performed for Gov. George Ryan in Illinois right before he left office as part of his decision-making process about whether he was going to commute the sentences of everyone on death row to life in prison [which he did].
reason: Can you talk a little bit about the Innocence Project’s involvement with the play?
Blank: [The people at] the Innocence Project have been incredible supporters of the play almost since the very beginning. They put us in touch with several exonerees. A portion of the proceeds from the play’s box office goes to support them because we want to give back with this work. They’ve given so much to us, and they do such extraordinary work for the wrongfully convicted.
Jensen: This play is neither left-wing nor right-wing. We don’t have an agenda. Our job is to stay out of the way and just let the people tell their stories for themselves. So when the pro−death penalty attack machine sort of came after us, the Innocence Project was right there, coming to our defense and walking us through how to deal with stuff like that. They deal with that on a daily basis.
reason: What was the experience for some of the people who are depicted in your play after being released?
Jensen: If people are uninformed or uneducated about the case or the issue, or only have a tangential idea of what actually went on, there’s a suspicion that hangs over them. And of all the things that are traumatic when you get out of prison that’s probably one of the most traumatic.
Blank: That’s particularly distinct in a small town —people who were convicted within a small community and then went back into that community upon their release because that’s where their family was and that’s where their support network was—I think those people are some of the folks who struggled the most because there’s just a level of suspicion that never goes away.
Jensen: In the African-American community it’s sort of an open-arms situation. People are really welcomed back in. In the Caucasian community not so much, because I don’t think wrongful conviction is a daily part of life in that community.