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NPR: 'Blind Injustice' opera earns national stage

'All Things Considered' covers opera debut as audiences explore the powerful stories of wrongly convicted set free by UC's Ohio Innocence Project

Not only did the opera “Blind Injustice” make its debut on stage in Cincinnati this week, the creative retelling of six cases successfully handled by the University of Cincinnati’s Ohio Innocence Project was featured on NPR’s “All Things Considered” during its July 23 nationally syndicated radio show.

The Cincinnati Opera’s production explores the true stories of six of the 28  people who have been imprisoned and ultimately freed thanks to the work of students, staff and faculty from the UC College of Law where the OIP is based.

Mark Godsey, UC law professor and OIP director, says it has been incredibly rewarding to finally have a chance to see the artistic production come to life on stage. The opera’s name, “Blind Injustice,” is the same as his 2017 book, which he wrote to expose the flaws in the American justice system that lead to men and women going to prison for crimes they didn’t do. 

“I could never have imagined when we started OIP that it would lead to a staged production,” says Godsey, who started at OIP in 2003. “In the end, it’s just an amazing story to share, no matter what medium is used. And that’s a credit to the exonerees who have lived out these tragedies in real life as well as the UC students and faculty who worked so hard to help them.”

Mother and son are separated by guards on stage

Derrick Wheatt (Sankara Harouna) and his mother (Deborah Nansteel) are separated by prison guards in Cincinnati Opera’s world premiere production of “Blind Injustice.” Photo courtesy of Cincinnati Opera/Philip Groshong.

Cases featured

NAME: East Cleveland 3: Laurese Glover, Eugene Johnson and Derrick Wheatt

CHARGED: Murder

CONVICTED: January 1996

RELEASED: March 26, 2015. The then-teenagers were sentenced to between 15 and 18 years to life in the shooting death of a man largely on the basis of the testimony of a teenage witness who later recanted her story, saying she was coerced by police. A judge overturned their convictions in 2015, and in 2018, they were awarded $5 million each by an Ohio jury who found that East Cleveland police officers violated their civil rights. In January 2019 they were declared innocent by a Cleveland court.

Three young men stand behind a slain victim on stage

The East Cleveland 3—Eugene Johnson (Miles Wilson-Toliver), Laurese Glover (Terrence Chin-Loy), and Derrick Wheatt (Sankara Harouna)—are accused of murdering a bystander (Morgan Smith) as Prosecutor (Joseph Lattanzi) looks on in Cincinnati Opera’s world premiere production of “Blind Injustice.” Photo courtesy of Cincinnati Opera/Philip Groshong.

NAME: Nancy Smith 

CHARGED: Gross sexual imposition, rape and attempted rape

CONVICTED: July 1994

RELEASED: Feb. 4, 2009. Nancy Smith served nearly 15 years in prison after a jury convicted her and co-defendant Joseph Allen of conspiring to molest preschoolers. In 2009, a judge granted her a new trial based on a technical problem in her original hearing. Prosecutors appealed. Smith then accepted a plea deal that allowed her not to have to return to prison.

Actors kneel and lay down on stage as part of opera

Nancy Smith (Maria Miller), surrounded by Clarence Elkins (Thomas J. Capobianco), Laurese Glover (Terrence Chin-Loy, foreground), Defense Attorney (Samuel Levine), and Derrick Wheatt (Sankara Harouna) in Cincinnati Opera’s world premiere production of “Blind Injustice.”

Three actors on stage as Nancy Smith pleads with someone

Nancy Smith (Maria Miller) pleads her innocence to ensemble members Morgan Smith and Deborah Nansteel in Cincinnati Opera’s world premiere production of Blind Injustice. Photo courtesy of Cincinnati Opera/Philip Groshong.

NAME: Rickey Jackson 

CHARGED: Murder

CONVICTED: September 1975

RELEASED: Nov. 21, 2014. Jackson, who entered prison at the age of 18 after being convicted of murder during a robbery, served 39 years in prison—the longest prison term for an exonerated defendant in American history. His conviction was based on the state’s key witness, a 12-year-old boy who four decades later recanted his story, explaining that police intimidated him into testifying.

Stage scene shows man being arrested by police

Rickey Jackson (Eric Shane) is arrested in Cincinnati Opera’s world premiere production of “Blind Injustice.” Photo courtesy of Cincinnati Opera/Philip Groshong.

NAME: Clarence Elkins 

CHARGED: Murder 

CONVICTED: June 1999 

RELEASED: Dec. 15, 2005. Clarence Elkins served more than six years in prison after he was convicted of murder in the tragic beating death of his 68-year-old mother-in-law, Judith Johnson, and the beating and rape of his 6-year-old niece. He was released from prison after new DNA evidence revealed another inmate to be the perpetrator. 

Stage scene of man in chair being interrogated by three other men

Clarence Elkins (Thomas J. Capobianco) is interrogated by police (Morgan Smith, Will Reed, and Joseph Parrish) in Cincinnati Opera’s world premiere production of "Blind Injustice." Photo courtesy of Cincinnati Opera/Philip Groshong.

Stage scene shows man and women standing and looking in different directions

Defense Attorney (Samuel Levine) and law student Alesha (Victoria Okafor) in Cincinnati Opera’s world premiere production of "Blind Injustice."

Stage scene of a man pointing in the face of another man carrying a briefcase

Defense Attorney (Samuel Levine) confronts Prosecutor (Joseph Lattanzi) in Cincinnati Opera’s world premiere production of "Blind Injustice."

Godsey points out that the beauty of the opera is that a whole new community of people are learning about the issues that lead to wrongful convictions.

"The stories represented by these exonerees are both tragic and uplifting," says Godsey. "I can only hope this retelling continues to shine a light on injustice."

Six people on stage standing in squares lit with dramatic lighting

Exonerees Nancy Smith (Maria Miller), Laurese Glover (Terrence Chin-Loy), Rickey Jackson (Eric Shane), Eugene Johnson (Miles Wilson-Toliver), Derrick Wheatt (Sankara Harouna), and Clarence Elkins (Thomas J. Capobianco) in Cincinnati Opera’s world premiere production of "Blind Injustice." Photo courtesy of Cincinnati Opera/Philip Groshong.

Featured image at top: Evidence is presented by forensic scientists, observed by Prosecutor (Joseph Lattanzi) and law student Alesha (Victoria Okafor), in Cincinnati Opera’s world premiere production of "Blind Injustice." Photo coutesy of Cincinnati Opera/Philip Groshong.