M y guests today are actors/writers/playwrights Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen. Welcome back to OpEdNews, Jessica and Erik. You wrote Living Justice - love, freedom and the making of "The Exonerated," your documentary play about wrongful convictions. It all started with an unconventional date you went on, early in your relationship. Can you tell our readers about that?
Sure. We'd been dating for about a month, and Jessica brought Erik to a conference on the death penalty at Columbia. Erik likes to say that it was early in the relationship, when he'd still say yes to anything she suggested! Jessica was a pretty politically-oriented person and had been interested in the criminal justice system for some time.
We went to a workshop at the conference on a group of cases called the Death Row Ten--men in Chicago who had all been allegedly tortured into confessions by a particular police commander. The police commander had been found to have done this through an internal investigation, and fired, but these men--some of whom had no other evidence against them besides their "confessions"---were still sitting on death row. We heard a lecture about the cases, and watched some documentary footage; it was all very disturbing, but mostly on an intellectual level--there was a certain amount of "remove" from the subject. But then the conference organizers had arranged for one of the inmates to call the room from prison, and hooked the cell phone up to a speaker so that for a few minutes he was talking to us, there in the room. The call was short--mostly he just talked about missing his family and wanting to come home--but by the time it was cut off, everyone in the room was in tears. It was incredibly emotionally immediate, much more so than the hourlong lecture and parade of facts before the call.
We were both extremely affected by the call, but Erik looked around the room after it was over, and noticed who was there: defense attorneys, activists, clergy--in short, people who were already interested in and concerned about the subject of wrongful conviction. It was a classic "preaching to the choir" situation---these were not the people who most needed to be having this experience. We started writing notes back and forth to each other on Jessica's laptop about how to get around that problem---how to bring the kind of emotional immediacy--the human, visceral experience we'd just had--to people who wouldn't otherwise be interested in the subject. We were (and are) both professional actors, and we were (and are) both interested in the medium of documentary theater...so immediately our minds turned to theater. In that conversation, we hit upon the idea of traveling around the country to interview exonerated death row inmates---people who had been sentenced to death and later freed amidst overwhelming evidence of their innocence---and create a play from the interview transcripts.
Your relationship and the project quickly became inextricably intertwined. Did you ever imagine sitting there that day that the project would take over your lives to the extent that it did?
We definitely imagined no such thing! When we got the idea, we imagined that whatever we wrote would be performed by some of our friends in a 99-seat house (if that) for a week or two. We never imagined the life the play would take on---or how it would take over our lives! We went home from the conference and did a couple months' worth of research on the criminal justice system, wrongful conviction, and the death penalty--and once we had a basic grasp of the subject matter, we started reaching out. In May of 2000, we spoke to producer Allan Buchman at the Culture Project, who we both knew from being actors; he said it sounded like a great idea and he'd give us his theater for free for three nights that fall if we had something to put up as a reading in time for the 200 presidential elections that fall. He said he'd give us $1000 in seed money for the interviews, and told us to get going. We assembled an artistic advisory board (which included journalists, former members of Congress, documentary theater makers like Moises Kaufman of "The Laramie Project," etc) and we started calling literally everyone we knew for help. We called journalist friends and asked them how to do an interview; we called friends who worked at non-profits and asked them how to raise money---we even called playwright friends and asked them how to write a play! And we reached out to legal organizations to try to get in touch with exonerated death row inmates.
After much vetting, the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University decided to help us, and put us in touch with about forty exonerees. We cold-called them at home--it's pretty difficult to describe the extent of our nervousness the first time we picked up the phone to make one of those calls. Some people didn't want to talk about their cases anymore, and when that was the case, we didn't press--but most people did want to talk. We conducted nearly 40 preliminary interviews, and then we planned to travel to visit about 20 of those 40 in person. We were two broke, young New York actors living in a 350-square foot rent stabilized apartment, with a dog, and no car---but it didn't matter. We had the $1000 to start with--and a looming deadline. We rented a car, threw our dog in the back seat, and started out on the first of three road trips to meet our interview subjects.
Talk about on-the-job training! While you are both actors, you conceptualize very differently in some areas. Talk a little about what it was like to work with one another and work through the issues on this project which you both felt so passionately about.
When we did the interviews, we took three trips--one from New York to Minnesota, zigzagging through the whole Mid-Atlantic and Midwest; then we flew to Atlanta, rented a car, and drove through almost every state in the South, all the way down to the bottom of Florida; then the third trip was to Texas. On those trips, the individuals we met moved us, changed us, inspired us, and changed the way we look at the world. So the normal disagreements that come up when you're collaborating with someone kind of paled in comparison. The exonerees we interviewed had lived through so much, and had such mind-boggling stories to tell, that we immediately developed a really strong sense of shared purpose in terms of bringing those stories to the world. When we work together, we're really not concerned with who's right and who's wrong, or whether any given idea is "good" or "bad"--we're just concerned with whether it works. Whether it's effective, whether it serves the story and the piece. So, certainly, we had differences of opinion along the way, but we had to hash through them pretty quickly and keep moving forward, rather than getting stuck.
The pubic records for these cases were, in some cases, extremely hard to access. Why was that and what did that tell you about the way our justice system works?
Yeah, that was an interesting and surprising thing to encounter. After the early readings--in time for the 2000 elections--of an early version of the play, we embarked on our revision process. The first version of the play contained eleven stories--each one important, stunning, and compelling. Our audiences for that first version were extremely moved by the stories, but people kept saying they wanted to know more about HOW things could go so terribly wrong in a court system that promises transparency, balance and the presumption of innocence. We realized that to tell more of that story, we needed to cut the number of stories to six, and to find material from the court transcripts and case files that would illustrate, activate, and augment the interview material.
Court records and trial transcripts are all public record. We
figured that meant it would be relatively easy to get our hands on
copies. We were shocked to find how far from reality our initial
assumption was. Record-keeping systems vary widely from state to
state, and it may be the case now that some states computerize
court records--but this was most definitely not the case with any
of the cases we were working with.
Records, if they existed, were packed in cardboard boxes deep in dusty warehouses; crammed onto low-quality microfiche in tiny county buildings; crumpled into files tucked in the back of municipal buildings. We spent hundreds of hours tracking down and digging out those records--and then some counties and states wanted to charge us anywhere from a dollar to four dollars a page to copy them. We were lucky--we had time, the ability to travel, and some meager resources--but it made us realize how inaccessible those records are to the people who need them most--the wrongly convicted, confined to a cell, without financial resources and, in many cases, without representation with the time, resources, or inclination to aggressively and tenaciously track down records and evidence.
You mention the high cost - up to $4 per page - to copy public records. How many pages were in the cases you looked into? Give us an idea what are we talking about, dollars-and- cents- wise.
Well, every case is different, and states (and sometimes counties) all have different rules. It's pretty common that a defendant's attorney has access to the original trial transcript without charge--in most places. But most of the exonerees we met weren't freed only because of their court-appointed attorney alone, or by the "normal" workings of the criminal justice system--it took a crusading pro bono attorney, a documentarian, journalist, a group of law students, or the like combing through and shedding light on the case--and most of those people would normally have to chase down and pay for copies of case files and trial transcripts. Trials are different lengths--some a few days, others weeks--and many of these cases have multiple appeals. Factor in the case files, which contain depositions, letters, interrogation transcripts--anything that's been entered into evidence--and you easily get into the thousands of pages.
Which can mean thousands of dollars, putting it out of reach for someone who is most likely poor, young and/or a minority. There were some incredible moments putting this project together. Tell our readers what happened when life and art converged as some of the exonerees came to see a documentary about their ordeal.