Dirt Dogs Looks at True Cases of Those Sent to Death Row, Then Exonerated

Husband and wife playwrights Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen (The Exonerated, Aftermath, How To Be A Rock Critic) interviewed six individuals who were wrongfully convicted of capital crimes.
Husband and wife playwrights Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen (The Exonerated, Aftermath, How To Be A Rock Critic) interviewed six individuals who were wrongfully convicted of capital crimes. Photo by Gary Griffin; graphic treatment by Melissa J. Mayo
It's the stuff of nightmares. Imagine being charged with a capital crime you didn't commit and, no matter what you say or do, you're found guilty by a jury of your peers (though that's a whole other subject) and locked away on death row. How would you survive?

Husband and wife playwrights Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen explore the subject in their play, The Exonerated, which also was made into a 2005 film for television. "Some fall back on their relationship with God, some on spirituality not defined as any particular thing, meditation, meditation and yoga, to become at peace with oneself and one’s core," says Malinda L. Beckham, who is directing the production for Dirt Dogs Theatre Co., their second offering of the 2017-2018 season.

Beckham says others rediscovered value in their relationships with siblings or loved ones, and that each of the six individuals portrayed in the play turned to something different to survive not just serving time, but navigating the free world after they were exonerated.

As the play unfolds in courtrooms, bars and prisons, we learn more about these true stories through dialogue gleaned from interviews, letters, transcripts, case files and public record: Delbert Tibbs, who had an alibi but was still convicted, said he had to "practice a bunch to be human again;" Gary Gauger, accused of murdering his own parents, said “[The police] started making me think I had a blackout and actually done it;” and then there's Sonia "Sunny" Jacobs, the only woman on Florida's death row. “I didn’t even get lemons. I got manure.”

While all of the stories are tragic, one of the most heart-wrenching is that of Kerry Max Cook, who was charged with capital murder and served more than two decades on death row. His dialogue says it all: “If it happened to me, man, it can happen to anyone.”

Portraying the six wrongfully accused are Todd Thigpen, Holly Vogt Wilkison, John Patterson, Travis Ammons, Andraes Hunt and Dave Osbie Shepard. Beckham also has more actors portraying a whole host of other characters. "There are three spouses that support the exonerated person on stage and then there’s an ensemble that plays everything else: prosecutor, witness, codefendent to a boyfriend, a lover. Quite a number of different players," says Beckham. "They take on like 14 characters. They’re getting quite a workout. They move quickly from one scene to the next scene as well.

"We have Dave Osbie Shepherd who plays not only one of the exonerated but also he plays the part of our guide; our narrator if you will. He kind of guides us between the other five stories as well as telling his own story," says Beckham. "And actually he’s very current in the papers even today because he continues to fight for factual innocence."

In doing research, playwrights Blank and Jensen learned that, in most cases, the exonerated must be proven innocent before the state becomes liable for any monetary damages.

Beckham labels the script a docu-drama and says she focuses more on the story rather than the message when selecting a play. "Being released from death row isn’t the end of the story. They have to acclimate back into society — that can be the hardest part. You’re free, but you’re still locked up," says Beckham. "It’s a simple story about a complicated subject that has deep human meaning on multiple levels and requires a lot of thought and a lot of discussion. You’ve got a lot of different viewpoints on the death penalty.

"We’re not trying to change anybody’s mind."

Performances of The Exonerated are set for 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays (March 9-24); 2 p.m. March 11 and 18; 7:30 p.m. March 15, 19 and 22; The MATCH, 3400 Main; 713-561-5113 or 713-521-4533; or; $5 to $50 (pay what you can).

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Susie Tommaney is a contributing writer who enjoys covering the lively arts and culture scene in Houston and surrounding areas, connecting creative makers with the Houston Press readers to make every week a great one.
Contact: Susie Tommaney