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

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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23 Comments

Bumblebee

I think it’s saying that they are married, and that at one point that must have seemed very, very unlikely to ever happen, since one was on death row in America and the other was on death row in Ireland.

(10)(0)
Anonymous

It’s a little known fact that Ireland still had the death penalty until 1990.

It was only for killing police officers, and death was a sentence passed rather frequently in the 1980s for that offence- the state going so far as to test the gallows and set execution dates, but ultimately everyone sentenced to death was reprieved.

Ireland was the last Western European state to actually pass death sentences, though France was the last Western European state to carry out an execution (in 1977, by guillotine- seriously!)

Ireland now has a constitutional ban on the death penalty, which was passed by popular referendum in 2002.

(1)(0)
Anonymous

This is nonsense.

Pringle – an IRA associate – was convicted in October 1980 of capital murder (killing two Garda officers – his co-defendants spent 33 years in prison but have not said who the 3rd man was in public). His sentence was commuted in May 1981. He spent 6 months, not 15 years on “death row” in a country that had largely abolished the death penalty in 1964 and had last executed anyone in the 1950s. There was exactly no chance that Pringle would be executed. His conviction was quashed in 1995 on the basis that a blood sample should have been examined.

A week after his release, his solicitor wrote to the State demanding £50,000 as an interim payment for wrongful imprisonment. The demand was given short shrift. Since then, Pringle has not initiated any action that could result in obtaining a certificate of miscarriage and a huge compensation payout. Over the last 20 years he has frequently stated that he is still “trying” to get his case into the High Court, but it’s unclear who on earth might be stopping him.

(0)(1)
Gavin from Sales

This post has been removed because it breached Legal Cheek’s comments policy.

(4)(2)
Anonymous

“Imagine being sentenced to death for a crime you didn’t commit….It’s unimaginable”

“in 1970s American”

Great writing there LC.

(6)(0)
Anon of 7

On the rare occasions, I ever saw counsel become emotional in court, it was seen as bad form at best and a disciplinary offence at worst. Though I was once asked to leave court for uncontrollable giggling.
But teary eyed counsel , no I never saw that.

This post has been moderated because it breached Legal Cheek’s comments policy.

(1)(1)
Martha

That is a really nasty anecdote and has made me feel quite queasy. Life is a valuable and precious thing that God has gifted to us and it sickens me that some intelligent people can be reduced to such hatred and acts inspired by the devil. Yuck.

(5)(5)
Anonymous

Danielle Walters was in one episode of Gavin and Stacey according to IMDB, but in 12 episodes of Chewing Gum on channel 4 – why was she attributed to Gavin and Stacey?

(0)(1)
Anonymous

“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”.”

Contently?

(5)(1)
Anonymous

KC can’t write to save her career. Good job she barely has one.

(5)(0)
Doc. Ludvig Friedrich Von Lowenstein

LC are cautious, as even vexatious claims with no merit, cost money to defend. I know. I have had enough of them.

(1)(1)
Anon of 7

LC. If you want me to send you an immediate law suit, and one to me , all I need to do, is say his name.
I have the papers to hand. I choose not to do so. Chill out.

(0)(0)
Anonymous

I’m going to stick my head above the parapet here, as an otherwise leftie liberal type who was recently bereaved, I really don’t see a problem with capital punishment for “the worst of the worst” in a modern criminal justice system such as ours.

Innocent people, young and old, die horribly and painfully every day, through no fault of their own; through illness, accident, warfare and murder.

I hardly think that snapping the neck of someone like Ian Brady, resulting in instant death is wrong.

(4)(1)
Anon of 7

Hear hear 554. What a waste of time and money was Ian Brady.

(1)(0)
Fanner of the Flames

I agree, though I would reserve it only for those murders that currently merit whole-life sentence (ie a very rare sentence for the worst of the worst).

It need not be like the USA; our appeals system as it currently exists would prevent the death row phenomenon (which our own common-law jurisprudence via the Privy Council regards as an intolerable breach of human rights- Pratt v Morgan), and our Legal Aid system ensures that those in such cases are properly represented with a QC, junior counsel and solicitor.

Furthermore we would not have the twisted lethal injection method which takes several minutes to administer even when done properly- hanging took an average of 15 seconds from cell to instantaneous death and (post war) was never botched.

(0)(1)
Rupert NOT Poopert

I demand the death penalty for anyone who mocks my name!

(0)(0)
Anonymous

A core objection to the death penalty is that you become no better than the offender. A ‘state sponsored murder’ would also require individuals to take the life of another on a ‘regular’ basis and by instruction. It doesn’t sit right with me that someone could be employed to kill.
Furthermore, we would have to leave the Human Rights Act which could leave some individuals very vulnerable and potentially undermine the severity of committing murder.

(0)(0)

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