It was 1979 and Sunny Jacobs, her nine-year-old son and 10-month-old daughter, were in the backseat of a green Camaro, headed toward Palm Beach, FL. Sunny and her ex-con boyfriend Jesse Tafero had accepted a ride with a casual acquaintance, Walter Rhodes, also an ex-con who had recently violated his parole.
Pulling off I-95 at a rest stop, Sunny, Jesse and the two kids would have continued on their way to a new life, except Rhodes panicked when he saw two policemen approaching the car and shot them dead.
Oddly, Rhodes was the only one who tested positive for gunpowder residue, but after agreeing to testify against Jacobs and Tafero, he received a life sentence. His two unsuspecting passengers received the death penalty.
Remaining on death row until May, 1990, Tafero made headlines when Florida’s electric chair caused flames to shoot out of his head during his execution. At that point, Jacobs – who believed if others could survive prison camp, she could survive death row – learned a childhood friend, who was also a filmmaker, had found some discrepancies in her case, discrepancies that would overturn her conviction and lead to her release in 1993.
By the time Sunny Jacobs was released, she had suffered more losses than her soul mate. Indeed, both of her parents had been killed in a plane crash while on their way to visit her in jail, she was now middle-aged, a stranger to her son and his family and estranged from her daughter.
In the same year of Sunny’s release, The Innocents Project was established at Yeshiva University. Since its founding, 183 individuals convicted and sentenced for crimes have been exonerated through the use of DNA technology. Of those, 14 had been sent to death row.
During the play, Sunny addresses the audience: "I'll just give you a moment to reflect. From 1976 to 1992, just remove that entire chunk from your life, and that's what happened."
Hers is one of six true stories writers Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen have chronicled in their play, “The Exonerated,” to be featured on the main stage of the Lone Star College-North Harris Theatre for four performances, Feb. 22, 23 and 24 at 8 p.m. and Feb. 25 at 2 p.m.
Cash Carpenter, director of Theatre at North Harris, calls the play, “verbatim theatre” because every word of the script is taken from letters, legal transcripts and other documents.
“Once the script for this play was published, I bought a copy and began reading it,” Carpenter recalled, “unable to put it down until I had finished the entire script. It was that compelling.
The director, then, began studying the lives of others who had been exonerated. “I put it on my list to do as soon as rights were available,” he said. When it came time to begin planning for our February production, we wanted to do something dealing with how technology affects our lives. In “The Exonerated,” DNA and the technology associated with identifying human DNA is able to exonerate people and I thought it would fit well with the theme of how technology changes lives.
“We were granted rights and, at that point, began moving forward to find a cast to pull the show off, seeking actors who were willing to dedicate themselves to such an emotionally-driven project and to bring the show to life.
“It’s a unique play, providing the audience with a unique experience that includes innocence, injustice and redemption,” Carpenter continued. “It’s about being wrongly accused, convicted and sentenced to death row – and then being free and in the world again. It’s not about anger or revenge, but about hope, forgiveness and the strength of the human spirit.”
In each case, the wrongly convicted sat on death row for years. Extraordinary legal measures, crusading journalism students, investigative reporters or concerned attorneys working pro bono saved their lives.
Much like the 12 who serve on a jury and ultimately decide another’s fate, “The Exonerated” tells the story of 12 subjects who were freed through an appeals process that dragged on for as long as 20 years. The play, itself, intricately intersects monologues, pulled from 40 interviews with former death row inmates who were eventually proven innocent and released.
Carpenter admits the play is not without challenges. “We held open auditions throughout Houston with the goal of bringing in some older, age-appropriate actors to work with our student cast members,” he explained. “During those auditions, we cast actors from the community with extensive acting experience to portray the characters of Delbert Tibbs and Gary Gauger.”
In an effort to bring the realities of prison life closer to his students, Carpenter contacted the warden at Huntsville in an effort to arrange a tour for “The Exonerated’s” cast. However, his request was denied and, in lieu of that, some cast members have spoken by telephone with the individuals they are portraying in the production.
As the opening night nears, Carpenter, his cast and crew are working, practically, around the clock. He believes the effort will be worthwhile in bringing a unique experience to North Harris students as well as to the audience.
“If people's hearts are open and they hear these stories, they cannot and will not be able to leave the theater without being deeply touched,” Carpenter said. “This play is about the human spirit, what we can endure and what we can overcome. We hope everyone who sees the production will leave the theatre willing to dig deeper, not accepting everything at face value, and if that happens, we will have done our job.”
Accompanying the play will be exhibits on loan from the Texas Prison Museum of inmate art and examples of prison uniforms and other handiwork as well as a DNA testing exhibit, explaining how DNA testing works as well as DNA kits for every audience member to take home. “It’s a new way of keeping household information,” Carpenter pointed out, “the new finger print.”
Tickets are priced at $10 and may be reserved by calling 281.765.7963. “The Exonerated” is not recommended for children.
North Harris College is located at 2700 W.W. Thorne Drive, one-half mile south of FM 1960 East, between Aldine-Westfield and Hardy Roads. For more information about the college, call 281.618.5400 or visit northharris.lonestar.edu.
NHMCCD, among the five largest and fastest growing community colleges in Texas, comprises, North Harris College, Kingwood College, Tomball College, Montgomery College, Cy-Fair College, six satellite centers, and The University Center. To learn more, visit www.lonestar.edu.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE 02/02/2007
CALENDAR LISTING: Through Feb. 23
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