It’s unusual for an undergraduate to take on the role of dramaturg for an IU Department of Theatre, Drama and Contemporary Dance main stage production. We welcome Kathryn’s first contribution here at 7th & Jordan and we’re grateful that she is willing to share her passion with us.
I started research for “The Exonerated” in July. At that point, 30 of the 50 states had the death penalty. In many of those states, America’s shortage of lethal injection drugs had temporarily halted executions. “The Exonerated”’s Kerry Max Cook finally had his fourth trial where the state of Texas dropped its murder charges against him after almost 40 years.
July was also the month of wall-to-wall national convention coverage.
A play’s significance can change in the years since its first production. Blank and Jensen did much of the research for “The Exonerated” in 2000. These were the months leading up to George W. Bush’s election. Under his governorship, Texas executed 131 inmates, many of whom were convicted in highly flawed trials similar to Kerry Max Cook’s.
We happened to do “The Exonerated” in an election year, four presidential races later. In the hours of Nov. 8, its significance shifted in the course of hours.
Rehearsal started in October. Director Liam Castellan and I finalized the actor’s packet the night of the second presidential debate at Washington University. That packet had an optimistic bent and carries the very wrong assumption that come November, the Democrats would retain the White House and possibly regain some control of Congress. More urgently for capital punishment, I wrote the packet assuming that Merrick Garland would push the Supreme Court further left. I summarized to the cast that the death penalty was on its way out.
One election later, we know what our country will look like for the next two to four years. President-elect Donald Trump has supported the death penalty for longer than he’s been a Republican. Three of the 11 people on Indiana’s death row were sentenced in the first year of vice president-elect Mike Pence’s governorship. Trump and the ever-Republican Senate will be responsible for filling the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s vacancy.
Unnoticed by national media amidst Trump’s victory were the results of state ballot initiatives in California, Nebraska and Oklahoma which variously expedited, reinstated or strengthened the death penalty.
The nation is firmly in Republican hands, a party whose platform says the death penalty is a constitutional right, and which condemns the Supreme Court’s “erosion of the right of the people to enact capital punishment in their states.” The court just heard a capital murder appeal from Texas today concerning mental disability. More death penalty cases will come to Washington in the coming years, before a court sure to be filled by Republican hands.
In the last minutes of “The Exonerated”, Delbert Tibbs, played by Associate Professor Ansley Valentine, says “I think some things about our country are fucked up — but I also think it’s a great country, you know, I really do.”
The note I wrote for the program is a relic more optimistic than I am now, but still based on reported fact. Anti-death penalty activism is an ongoing fight, with small victories undercut by many losses. The Pew Research Center found that public support for the death penalty was at an all-time low just as Ohio resumed executions. Dozens of inmates on Florida’s death row became eligible for resentencing before the election affirmed capital punishment’s place in our justice system.
We would do well to remember that a victim of our one country’s biggest failures saw no need to make it great again. Delbert’s example is vital.