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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.”
NAME: East Cleveland 3: Laurese Glover, Eugene Johnson and Derrick Wheatt
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.
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.
NAME: Rickey Jackson
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.
NAME: Clarence Elkins
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.
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."
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.