Emotions run high in Middle Temple Hall as barristers star alongside actors in touching play about life on death row

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By Katie King on

Two of the cast members had been sentenced to death themselves

L-R: Ian Porter, Jamie Parker, Lisa Eichhorn, Peter Pringle, Chris Jarman, Sunny Jacobs, Tunde Okewale, Danielle Walters, Leslie Thomas QC, Angela Wynter and Anthony Cozens

Imagine being sentenced to death for a crime you didn’t commit.

It’s unimaginable, yet those sitting in the audience of ‘The Exonerated’ in Middle Temple Hall this week were quickly and eerily reminded that in the United States, for every nine people sent to death row and executed, one is exonerated. The theatre production — put on by Amicus, written by Eric Jensen and Jessica Blank — told the true stories of six of those exonerees.

The evening began with a teary-eyed introduction by barrister and Amicus patron Sophie Garner — embrace “humility, humanity and hope”, she told us. Then the eclectic cast members took their places.

I don’t use the word eclectic lightly. Even the play’s programme divided the cast members into categories. There were ‘the lawyers’: Garden Court Chambers’ Leslie Thomas QC and Doughty Street Chambers’ Tunde Okewale. While it’s true these two didn’t quite match up to ‘the actors’, they put their all into it and did a good job.

But the most eagerly awaited performances came from those that fell under ‘the exonerees’ category.

These were Sunny Jacobs and Peter Pringle. Both served time on death row — Sunny 17 years in the US and Peter 15 years in Ireland — for murders they were later acquitted of. Incredibly they are now married.

Strangely Peter’s story did not feature in the play; he instead told the tale of Gary Gauger, who spent nearly three years on death row for the murder of his parents. This left the door wide open for Sunny, playing herself, to claim the starring role. Helped onto the stage from her wheelchair, she looked notably frailer than when I’d previously heard her speak at another Amicus event, but the sincerity with which she spoke was unrivalled by the other cast members.

Perched on a throne-like chair in the middle of the stage, 64-year-old Sunny recalled the execution of her then boyfriend, alongside whom she was convicted of the fatal shooting of two police officers in Florida. “The execution went wrong,” Sunny — the only woman on death row in the whole country when she was sentenced — said. His head caught fire while he was in the electric chair; smoke came out of his ears and he took ten minutes to die. “The press that were there are still writing about it today,” Sunny concluded, as the audience recoiled in horror.

Alongside Sunny’s story, a further two stood out to me.

One was that of Delbert Tibbs (played by Chris Jarman of The Book of Mormon fame), who was convicted of murdering a 27-year-old man and raping his girlfriend.

Delbert put much of his ordeal down to poor race relations in 1970s America, but striking was his sense of hope. He recalled:

I realised if I internalised all the pain, and all the anger, and all the hurt, I’d be dead already. They’d be no need to execute me.

Equally touching was the story of Kerry Cook (Jamie Parker, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child), a Texan who spent 22 years on death row for the rape and murder of a 21-year-old woman.

Kerry’s story was for me the most memorable of the six because it explored a theme the other five but touched upon: the impact death row has on its victims’ family members. The audience choked back tears as Kerry recalled how his brother “put himself on death row with me.”

Once a high-flyer, his brother turned to the bottle and ended up working at McDonald’s. He was fatally shot outside a club, after trying to break up a fight.

Though now free, Kerry blames himself for what happened to his brother, and still bears the scars of the rapes and mutilations he experienced in prison. He contently concluded: “the state of Texas executed me over 1,000 times”.

A few line fluffs and the uneventful staging couldn’t distract from the play’s fiercely emotive subject matter, and I was unsurprised by the standing ovation it received.

What was less expected was Sunny’s emotional outburst. Seconds after the play concluded, she tearfully thanked all those who came along and urged us to think hard about the soul-destroying impact being on death row can have on a person. Her impromptu monologue had a noticeable impact on her fellow cast members, most obviously actress Danielle Walters (Gavin and Stacey) who could be seen wiping her eyes throughout. Humility, humanity and hope in bucket loads.

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