Thursday, November 19, 2009

Death or Is It Life?

I attended a production of The Exonerated earlier today. I've seen it before, a couple of different productions. I've seen it with star-power actors and with local folks. This time the performers were college students.

The play is, of course, different depending on who's in it and who did the staging. But its simple power seems always to come through. Maybe because it is, ultimately, simple: Interwoven true stories of six people who were convicted of murders they didn't commit, sentenced to die, and eventually, as the title informs, exonerated.

But these aren't the usual dramatic tales of vindication, of justice attained, of brave lawyers and detectives. They are, in fact, barely about the exonerations at all.

The stories of these exonerated, told in their words from interviews and in words taken from court transcripts and police reports and the like, are the quotidian stories of the ordinariness of how wrongful convictions occurred, how these six endured prison, and how they experienced freedom afterward. (The exonerations themselves are almost incidental.) But if the tales are about the quotidian, there's nothing ordinary about them. They are, rather, marvels.

I've met a number of men and women who were exonerated after years in prison, including several from death row. I've shared podiums and spent hours talking with some of them. They are, as you might expect, a mixed group.

Some are bitter; some jaded. Some are selfish, looking for what's in it for them. Some see only despair, loss of the past and absence of a future. Others have a mission they've take up with zeal - to proevent more wrongful convictions, to end the death penalty, to save us from ourselves. Some are simply at peace, suffused with a form of earthly grace at which one can but marvel.

None of that is what set me off on this post. What set me off is what one of today's students said during the discussion after the play.

One member of the audience asked how, if at all, being in the play changed the students' perceptions. It's a fair question, but an interesting one for a group of theater majors who'd never really thought much about it before. Here in substance, though not in his words, is what one said.
I was always a supporter of the death penalty. I figured that before you'd kill someone you'd think, "Wait, I could get the death penalty," and so you probably wouldn't kill anyone. But as I looked at my character [he played Kerrry Max Cook] and how did this happen to him, I just thought, "Wow, you know."
The young man who said that was far more eloquent. He spoke from his heart and from his experience. And he spoke with a youthful energy and a smile that lit up the small theater where we were sitting. But what he said was fundamentally right.

Kerry Max Cook spent a horrific 22 years on death row in Texas. He's written a wonderful book, Chasing Justice, about the experience. And while with or without a death penalty he could certainly have been wrongly convicted, what this young man who played him understood (although perhaps he doesn't recognize that he understands it this way) is that there's a level of irreplaceable loss that we risk.

The death penalty, you see, is not really about death. It's about life. Just ask those who survived it.

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