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News: Age of Innocents

Rescuing the falsely accused at Ensemble Theatre

By Chris Charlson · September 15th, 2004 · News
Jerry Springer read a role in The Exonerated to support the Ohio Innocence Project.
David Sorcher

Jerry Springer read a role in The Exonerated to support the Ohio Innocence Project.

When Delbert Tibbs speaks of the events of 1974 that falsely landed him in prison for rape and murder, he does so with a cool resignation, almost if he were recounting some nondescript day in his life. He never raises his voice, even when referring to the three years he spent on death row at the Florida State Prison, a place he calmly refers to as "the Rock."

Tibbs isn't a bitter man consumed with hate or resentment for the system. He instead looks at his story as one of hope -- proof that justice can be served if the country's citizens just care enough.

"I know nobody's life is just smooth sailing all the time," he says. "Shit happens, pardon my language. In this particular context, this happens too often and what happened to me happens too often even yet in these United States. The reasons have to do with race often or it has to do with you don't have any money or economic status. That's a part of our inheritance, and we have to straighten that mess out."

'Being at the center'
The story of Delbert Tibbs unfolds along with five others as Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati (ETC) presents the regional premiere of The Exonerated, a play based on the lives of six falsely accused inmates freed from death row. The play is exclusively sponsored by the Rosenthal Foundation to benefit the Ohio Innocence Project, a project that allows University of Cincinnati law students to investigate serious crimes in which inmates steadfastly proclaim their innocence.

Being the first regional theater in the country to snare the rites to the off- Broadway hit came as quite a coup for the 191-seat venue, something ETC Theatre's Producing Artistic Director Lynn Meyers attributes to the theater's history of presenting political and sometimes controversial works.

"I think it's because of Ensemble's reputation for doing works that are critical to the understanding of where Cincinnati is and where the human condition is," she says. "I think where we are -- being located at 12th and Vine, being at the center of so much that is happening in the city -- it's important to do these kinds of works."

The production marks the second time the Ohio Innocence Project and Ensemble have teamed up to speak for justice. Last year the two partnered to present A Lesson Before Dying, the story of an innocent man on death row (see "The Art of Saving the Damned," issue of Feb. 4-10).

"It's bringing the legal practice and what we do in the innocence project to a larger community," says Mark Godsey, faculty director of the Ohio Innocence Project. "It's partnering with theater to bring it to perhaps people who are not lawyers but who may appreciate the arts, and thereby increasing the audience of both organizations."

Since its inception in 2002, the Ohio Innocence Project has screened more than 300 cases and is currently working on 20, with a backlog of 500 to be reviewed, according to Godsey.

"We haven't overturned any convictions at this point, but we have a case where we believe we've proved innocence, and the case is pending and will be decided Oct. 1," he says.

The case involves Chris Bennett, who is serving a nine-year sentence for aggravated vehicular homicide. Discovery of DNA evidence never collected during the original trial could prove his innocence, Godsey says.

To further invigorate students, the National Innocence Project's co-founder, celebrity attorney Barry Scheck, lectured Sept. 7 at UC and gave a short talk before a special performance of The Exonerated.

'These are innocent people'
Scheck wasn't the only celebrity attracted to the project. Former mayor and trash talk show host Jerry Springer played one of the roles for a single performance.

"Jerry Springer wanted to play a part -- and if anybody remembers his political career, Springer is very pro-life," Meyers says. "He approached us about doing an evening of it because he wanted to show support for the Ohio Innocence Project."

While the idea of changing performers in and out of the show might seem strange, it was a common practice in New York, according to William Jay Marshall, performing in both the off-Broadway and touring shows.

"Really it's how they sold the show," he says. "It's how they marketed it -- by rotating in people from movies and TV and stuff and it worked. It's exciting. I kind of looked forward to seeing (Springer) on stage."

Marshall, who reprises his role as Delbert Tibbs in the ETC production, says performing a play based on real people creates an entirely different experience for the actors and the audience because the stories are true.

"I really, really like this play," he says. "I've always been against the death penalty, but this play is probably more about justice than against the death penalty because these are innocent people."

Tibbs says he plans to attend the second week of performances beginning Sept. 16 and address the audience. Seeing his story on stage far from makes him nervous or uncomfortable, he says. He hopes all those who see the show will -- like him -- see hope and not despair.

"This is not a great exaggeration," he says. "I must have seen the show 40 or 50 times, but it blows my mind every time I see it. I'm fortunate because I survived a very ugly thing that I shouldn't have had to go through. It's complex like that, but to be simple, I regret the time that was taken away. But if I wasn't in prison, and I tell myself this sometimes, I could have gotten struck by a car or something crossing streets and been dead."

The Exonerated is playing at Ensemble Theatre through Sept. 26. See a review on page 57.


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