Playwrights Trace Path from Death Row to Freedom ; Two Actors Crisscrossed the US Talking with Death-Row Inmates Who Were Wrongly Convicted. Their Play, 'The Exonerated,' Debuts Off- Broadway Oct. 10

Article excerpt

Gary Gauger spent three years in prison for murdering his mom and dad before a group of law students uncovered his innocence and helped free him. He had been sentenced to die.

Mr. Gauger had discovered his parents murdered on their farm in northern Illinois in 1993. He was quickly arrested.

After 20 hours of grueling police interrogation, "I finally volunteered to give what they call a 'vision statement,' a hypothetical account of what I would have done if I had killed my parents," Gauger says. That statement was later used out of context as a confession, and he was convicted.

Stories like Gauger's were so moving to actors Erik Jensen and Jessica Blank, that they decided to write a play.

So they picked up the phone and interviewed 40 people who had been exonerated to gather ideas. Then, with an atlas, a little seed money, and their dog, Zooey, they hit the road to meet them face to face.

More than two years after their journey began, "The Exonerated," based on the stories they gathered, will debut off-Broadway Oct. 10. Starring Richard Dreyfuss and Jill Clayburgh, it follows six wrongfully convicted death-row inmates through arrest, imprisonment, and then readjustment to life on the outside.

Mr. Dreyfuss plays Kerry Cook, a Texas man who spent 21 years on death row for murdering a woman. Prosecutors said he killed her because he was homosexual (he isn't). DNA evidence finally cleared him. "I wasn't a street thug," Mr. Cook says. "I came from a good family. If it can happen to me, man, it can happen to anyone."

Ms. Clayburgh acts out the story of Sunny Jacobs. Sunny and her common-law husband were convicted of murdering two police officers in Florida. The true killer later confessed. But while Sunny was released 16 years later, exoneration came too late for her husband. He was sent to the electric chair. When the chair malfunctioned, his case drew global attention, and Florida later abandoned that method of execution.

Miscarriage of justice has been an enduring subject of fiction - from Jean Valjean in "Les Miserables" to Richard Kimble in "The Fugitive." The intersection of one individual with the vast, sometimes inhuman, power of the legal system creates its own drama. What makes the stories in "The Exonerated" noteworthy, beyond the inherent horror of an innocent person being sentenced to die, is that every word of dialogue comes from interviews with their real- life counterparts. Court and police transcripts provide other material.

Using money from credit cards, friends, and small grants, Mr. Jensen and Ms. Blank started their road trip. They logged 6,500 miles over two months, crisscrossing the country from New York to Illinois, Texas to Florida, often sleeping in their car to save money. …