The New Yorker: An Opera for the Wrongfully Convicted

The stories of six individuals wrongfully convicted and now free due to the efforts of the Ohio Innocence Project at the University of Cincinnati College of Law (OIP) were first shared via the medium of opera almost five years ago. Last week, that opera “Blind Injustice” came to life at Peak Performances at Montclair State University in New Jersey. And now, it has been featured by The New Yorker magazine in the article “An Opera for the Wrongfully Convicted”.  (Story exists behind a paywall.)

Based on the book of the same name written by Professor Mark Godsey, Director of the OIP, “Blind Injustice” has been performed in Cincinnati (OH), in cities across the state of Ohio, and now on the East Coast. In addition, it was recently featured in a New York Times article “Using Opera to Shine a Light on Wrongful Imprisonment”. (Story exists behind a paywall.)

The opera, which was commissioned by the world-renowned Cincinnati Opera company, premiered to national acclaim in 2019. It tells the story of Rickey Jackson, who spent 39 years in prison for a crime he did not commit; Nancy Smith, a Head Start bus driver falsely accused of molesting children and who spent more than 14 years in prison; Clarence Elkins, convicted of the murder of his mother-in-law and rape of her young granddaughter; and the East Cleveland 3: Laurese Glover, Eugene Johnson, and Derrick Wheatt, witnesses in a shooting who, despite tainted evidence, were convicted.

“Blind Injustice” explores the effects of wrongful convictions on the prisoners and their families, and the help they received to overturn their convictions. Wrote journalist Ian Frazier about their experiences and the performance, “Onstage, twelve actors, who portrayed Jackson, Smith, four other exonerees, a generic lead prosecutor, Mark Godsey, police officers, guards, and maybe a dozen other people, moved in and out of the beams of light, lifting their faces into the brightness as they sang and receding into the gloom as their characters despaired.”

To compose the opera and ensure the stories were shared authentically, “David Cote, the librettist, and Robin Guarino, the director and dramaturge, interviewed the exonerees and made the opera based on the transcripts; Cote said that about forty per cent of the libretto is taken from them verbatim” wrote Frazier.

The 90-minute performance ended with a standing ovation from the audience. After, Godsey, Jackson, Smith, some of the performers, the director, the librettist, the composer, the conductor, and Godsey returned to the stage to answer questions about the opera from their individual perspectives.

Note: The original story “An Opera for the Wrongfully Convicted” will be published in the March 4, 2024 print edition of The New Yorker magazine with the headline “Uncaged Birds”.

Lead photo: Law student Alesha (Victoria Okafor) in the 2019 world premiere of "Blind Injustice. Photo courtesy of the Cincinnati Opera/Philip Groshong.

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