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THE STRAINS OF BEING ‘EXONERATED’

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This past week, the UAlbany Theatre performed The Exonerated, a collection of stories from six individuals who were wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death row, eventually being exonerated of their crimes. The donations collected at the performances will be donated to the Culture Project, which will distribute the funds to those exonerated in the United States. The performance was inspiring and left me near to tears.

Maddy Rolon, a freshman Theatre major, gave a heartfelt performance as Sunny, who was convicted for the murders of a state officer and a Canadian officer in 1976. Sunny was released in 1992 when the real criminal stepped forward. Rolon brought to life the struggle of a woman who was wronged by the system, desperate to be reunited with her boyfriend, children and family, and somehow able to maintain a positive outlook on life.

Bryce Pole-Merchant, also a freshman, played David Keaton, a black 18-year-old who spent two years on death row after being wrongfully convicted by an all-white jury in 1971, and became the first man to be exonerated in the United States. Pole-Merchant captured a poetic, faithful character who dedicated the rest of his life to helping those wrongfully convicted by helping found Witness to Innocence, a foundation aiming to end the death penalty in the United States.

Spencer Dunn, a junior majoring in Sociology, played Delbert Tibbs, who was convicted of murder and rape by an all-white jury in 1974, but was exonerated in 1977 when an informant revealed he had lied during the trial, hoping for leniency in his own case. Dunn’s philosophical and wondering portrayal of this emcee-like character tied each of the individual stories together, making the play whole, and forcing the audience to question the morality of the death penalty.

Gary Gauger was convicted of killing his own parents in 1993, when the police held him in questioning for close to 12 hours before tricking him into confessing to the murder. He was set free in 1996, when the courts ruled that his confession was coerced and therefore inadmissible as evidence. He was eventually exonerated in 2002, when the courts convicted two motorcycle gang members for the crime. Max Conaway, a freshman, gave a wonderful performance, detailing the vulnerability of a recent orphan taken advantage of and of the struggles faced every day from judgement and persecution after his release from prison.

Robert Hayes was a horse trainer who was wrongfully convicted of rape and murder, and was denied his horse-trainer license post-released, but was laughably able to walk into a store and buy a gun. Ezekiel Miller, a junior, gave an excellent performance as a young man struggling to readjust into society, even with support.

Johan Buchan, a junior double major in Theatre and Communications, gave a powerful performance as Kerry Cook, a youth convicted of rape and murder by a cop with a grudge, who spent 20 years trying to prove his innocence from behind bars. Buchan’s portrayal demonstrated the devastating effects a sentencing, whether right or wrong, can have on an inmate’s family.

Gauger wrote In Spite of the System, recounting his exoneration, available at garygauger.com. Jacobs wrote Stolen Time: One Woman’s Inspiring Story as an Innocent Condemned to Death, telling the tale of her experiences on death row and her endless positive perspective, available at sunnyandpeter.com. Cook wrote Chasing Justice, detailing his conviction, experiences, and battle for freedom. Delbert Tibbs’ writings can be found at witnesstoinnocence.org, amongst many other works by those exonerated.

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