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“Living Justice” By Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen (Atria, 303 pages, $25) “Living Justice: Love, Freedom and the Making of ‘The Exonerated’” is a book about the criminal justice system unlike any other I have read. It’s about, simultaneously, the unplanned romance of a young woman and a young man who meet in New York City in 2000, their unexpected research into cases of alleged actual innocence, their unorthodox travels across the United States to interview wrongly convicted defendants, their decision to shape the material into a stage play, and their struggles to work within the artistic establishment so that a proposed stage play could become reality. It’s also about the unexpected impact of art on life and life on art. Jessica Blank, who grew up in Washington, D.C., moved to New York City, soon after graduating from college in Minnesota. By day, she worked as a political organizer. By night, she performed poetry. She fit in training at an acting studio as she could. Erik Jensen, who grew up in Minnesota, had moved to New York City a decade earlier. He earned steady income as an actor for independent filmmakers and televison producers. Jensen lived alone, except for a Brittany spaniel. Blank returned to her New Jersey apartment from Manhattan for a few hours of sleep, then began another 20-hour cycle in the big city. They met through a mutual friend. Although the grandson of a highway patrolman and the great-grandson of a judge, Jensen had thought little about the criminal justice system. Blank had barely thought about it at all. Still, as the child of a political activist and a devoted activist herself, Blank found herself drawn to attend an anti-death penalty conference at Columbia University during February 2000. Jensen agreed to accompany her. One of the many speakers they heard had served a prison term after Chicago police tortured him until he confessed. He gave his name as Leonard Kidd. But he did not say his name in person. Blank and Jensen heard his account on a speaker telephone, because Kidd, though perhaps innocent, remained incarcerated. Kidd’s account touched both of them emotionally and intellectually. Blank and Jensen, mutually interested in playwriting and acting, began discussing the possibilities, finally deciding to explore the answer to this question: What if they found people formerly on death row who were innocent, and made a play from their words? Jensen and Blank began consulting law books, popular accounts, and various other resources to learn about the history of the death penalty, to verify cases of actual innocence, and to keep abreast of current events, such as the moratorium on executions in Illinois. The duo located a few individuals interested in helping finance a stage play. With the small amounts of money advanced, Jensen and Blank started setting up interviews — at first through the Center for Wrongful Convictions at the Northwestern University Law School — then traveled frugally in a beat-up automobile. First stop: exonerated defendant Neil Ferber, who lived near Philadelphia. The interview proceeded smoothly. Ferber told the na�ve interviewers about his arrest and conviction, despite his alibi, despite questionable testimony from a jailhouse informant, despite eyewitness identification failing to match his height, weight, and hair color. “Sitting on Neil’s beige couches, listening to him talk, it hit us both — really for the first time — that making this play would be possible,” Jensen and Blank say, adding: Because not only did Neil have an incredible story, he was also an incredible character. All the details — his accent, the cadences of his sentences, the metaphors he used, how he used to get mad at the other inmates blaring hip-hop on their radios so he’d blast country western just to piss them off even though he hated country music almost as much as he hated rap — made his story memorable in a way that no newspaper article could ever convey. They made him human. And because we work in theater, as soon as we saw him as human in all the details, we could imagine him as a character. After interviewing Ferber, Jensen and Blank drove first to Columbus, Ohio, to learn about the wrongful conviction of Dale Johnston from the released defendant himself, and then to Chicago. There, an interview with wrongfully convicted defendant went well. An interview with Darby Tillis did not go nearly as smoothly. Blank and Jensen realized for the first time that not everybody would welcome their eager, somewhat uninformed inquiries, that some released defendants would question their motives, wondering if the young wannabe playwrights meant only to profit financially from the misery of others. From each interview, Blank and Jensen learned new lessons about malfunctions in the criminal justice system. Trial transcripts and other court documents did not come easily. When they finally arrived, Blank and Jensen could not always make sense of the legal jargon. As they chronicle their road trip — the documents chases, the interviews — Blank and Jensen travel side streets — literally (sometimes they get lost) and figuratively (as they discuss Erik’s dog, relatives, money shortfalls, and their blossoming romance). When the road trips end, just short of Page 200, the book turns primarily into a primer on staging a play. Finding the theater, the financiers, the actors, and actresses — little is simple when art is involved. Questionably motivated programs are funded by governments with billions of dollars taken from taxpayers. But significant art is bypassed at budget time, especially when that art is meant to criticize the government. Blank and Jensen caught a break when a Broadway connection found their concept compelling and lined up actress Susan Sarandon and her husband, actor Tim Robbins, to read two of the parts in “The Exonerated.” Marquee names would attract publicity, and they needed publicity. The play seemed to be coming together. Cast members rehearsed; eventually, the actors and actresses met the real-life persecuted men and women they were portraying. The bonding felt real, felt good. The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., halted progress on the play. Blank and Jensen wondered whether they and others affiliated with the effort would find a way to go on. Then came the epiphany:
The people in our play had survived. Each of them, individually, had been to places as dark as those visited by New York, and the whole country, that September. And not only had each of the exonerated folks survived, but many had come out the other side stronger. … The exonerated people had something to teach us about survival, endurance, and hope. That was the heart of the play.

Critical acclaim greeted “The Exonerated” when it opened on Broadway. Steve Weinberg is a freelance journalist who has been writing about the criminal justice system since 1968.

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