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The table in the lobby groaned with wine and cheese and fruit and crudit�s. There were T-shirts and goodie-bags, too. Such feasting and gifting is de rigueur at summer associate gatherings, this one held on a sweltering night last week at the Culture Project, an off-Broadway theatre on Bleecker Street. But when the curtain rose on “The Exonerated,” a scalding play about six true-life survivors of death row, some 150 soon-to-be lawyers knew it was not just another wine-and-dine evening in the waning days of being wooed by Manhattan firms. This event — a special performance to benefit the Legal Aid Society, with money and fresh ranks of pro bono attorneys — was “about as plain-wrap as theatre comes,” in the words of Variety critic Charles Isherwood. TRIAL EVIDENCE AS DIALOGUE Actors sat on stools and read from scripts on music stands, their lines of dialogue drawn from depositions and trial transcripts of capital cases. No razzle-dazzle sets, no costumes, no snazzy lights, no music. None of it was needed to hold the interns spellbound, or to keep them around afterwards for an hour-long discussion about the play’s blunt message. Again, as Isherwood put it: “The death penalty, as it is administered by a flawed American justice system, is a moral monstrosity.” Among those portrayed, for example, was a young bartender at a gay club in Texas who spent 22 brutal years in the state’s “Ex House” (as in execution). Despite strong indications that a local police officer had motive for murdering a young woman (he later confessed), the bartender was arrested, tried and convicted, largely on prosecution testimony from an alumnus of a six-week correspondence course — an “expert” witness who claimed that fingerprints can be traced precisely to the time of murder. In summation, the prosecutor implored his jury, “Let this court know what we do with homosexuals and perverts! We take their lives!” The defendant lived, so to speak: The state of Texas executed me a thousand times. I have my nightmares. POST-PLAY ‘TALK BACK’ During the post-play “Talk Back,” summer associates questioned Colleen Brady, attorney in charge of Legal Aid’s Capital Division. “How do you pick your jurors in a capital case?” asked one summer associate. “You don’t get to pick a jury, you get to un-select a jury,” Brady counseled. “If I find a [potential] juror I really like, I know the prosecution is going to get rid of him. So I look for people I can live with. “People who equate deciding on life or death with a civic duty that’s maybe distasteful, but which they’ll do. People who will at least listen to the defense.” Another asked: “Will the increased success of DNA evidence end capital punishment?” “There’s DNA in only a small number of cases,” said Brady, a veteran capital defense lawyer in Georgia and Alabama before joining Legal Aid in 1996. “The vast majority of wrongful convictions have to do with false or mistaken identity, often cross-racial identifications.” “Will more exonerations kill the death penalty?” asked another. “More presidential candidates coming out against it?” “There hasn’t been a single [anti-death penalty] candidate who’s even made it to the second round,” said Brady. With reference to Attorney General John Ashcroft and instructions to U.S. Attorneys’ Offices in districts where local prosecutors are unwilling to seek the death penalty, she added, “He’s lost 16 of the last 17 federal capital trials — at a humungous cost. Yet he continues to override state authorities.” One associate asked: “Has there been a strategic decision on the part of anti-death penalty lawyers to shift the argument away from a question of morality?” “We always used to come out with the moral issue because it was all we had. Now we have cost,” said Brady. “The defense cost of the first New York State death penalty trial, since capital punishment was reinstated in 1995, was $2 million. Right now, there are five people on [New York's] death row.” “Does the number of wrongful convictions shock you?” asked another. “We don’t allow such a level of error in building cars,” Brady said. “We shouldn’t tolerate it in terms of human life,” she said, by way of acknowledging she is beyond shock. “These errors, these false confessions — it happens all the time.” An exonerated character in the play, a black male poet, explained: They beat you up, they mess you up, they hang you up. If you’re accused of a sex crime in the South and you’re black, you might as well do it because they’re going to nail your ass. Deliberation is not the message of passage through these woods. PERFORMANCE WARM-UP Before the performance, Daniel L. Greenberg, president and attorney-in-chief of Legal Aid, told the audience that he hoped they would be haunted by lines from the play for years to come. He reminded them, too, of lofty ideals expressed in the personal statement portions of their law school applications. “Before I got this job, I spent some years at Harvard Law running the clinical program,” said Greenberg. “I was the one reading those papers about how it wasn’t your goal in life to put one corporation with another corporation to make a new IPO. “So, when you finally get out of school and down to work in your firm, all I ask of you is your time and money.” Time for pro bono capital defense would come later. Meanwhile, Greenberg instructed the summers to “drop a five or a ten” into collection baskets on their way out. On a sweltering Wednesday night on Bleecker Street, the baskets overflowed. And when the summers filed out, they were haunted by the lines: They tell you just how they’re going to do it to you. Send 2,000 volts through your body. And they ask you, What do you think about that? What can you say to that? This is a weird country, man.

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