'Blind Injustice' Opera Sets Out To Open Eyes About Wrongful Conviction Rates

Jul 25, 2019
Originally published on July 23, 2019 4:46 pm

Cincinnati Opera has premiered a new opera that chronicles the stories of six people wrongfully convicted in Ohio and in the process, puts America's criminal justice system on trial. The new opera Blind Injustice is based on a book of the same title by Mark Godsey, a former prosecutor and law professor at the University of Cincinnati. Godsey, who co-founded the Ohio Innocence Project, currently works with his students to crack the cases of those wrongfully convicted in Ohio.

Years before he became involved in the innocence movement, Godsey worked as a federal prosecutor in the Southern District of New York. "I'd been in denial about a lot of the problems in the system as a prosecutor and I'd been sort of arrogant about it," Godsey says.

Working on wrongful conviction cases prompted Godsey's change of heart, which eventually led to him writing the 2017 book Blind Injustice. But the idea of making an opera came months before the book's publication, when Ohio Innocence Project members began discussing the possibility of a related choral work with Cincinnati's Young Professionals Choral Collective."From that, the conversation snowballed into saying, 'Wait a minute, there's an opera here,'" Evans Mirageas, Cincinnati Opera's Artistic Director, says of the source material.

Soon, director and dramaturg Robin Guarino and librettist David Cote started working with six of the real-life exonerees that were highlighted in Godsey's book.

One piece of the opera tells a story, as Cote heard it, from one of the exonerees in the group known as the East Cleveland Three — African-American teenagers who spent two decades in prison for murder based on the false testimony of a 14-year-old girl. In that part of the libretto, a performer sings, "Here's the street / We was driving down the street / The street is set up so crazy." Cote's interview with the exoneree directly informed those lines.

"He took a piece of paper from my pad and started drawing the diagram of the street," Cote describes. "And that became the libretto of the 'Scene of the Crime' — with him describing the street, and 'There's a blind spot here,' and 'There's a bridge that comes over here.'"

About 40 percent of the Blind Injustice libretto comes directly from interviews with these wrongfully convicted subjects. In those interviews, some exonerees discussed experiences that they rarely shared with anyone.

Clarence Elkins, who was was wrongfully convicted for the 1998 rape and murder of his mother-in-law and the rape of his 6-year-old niece, conveys a dark moment in the opera. In his prison cell, Elkins was frightened and became paranoid. "I'm like, 'What is going on?' All the screaming and the hollering and the gang talks. And, you know, all of those types of things that I'm experiencing," Elkins says, "I thought I was being plotted to be killed."

Cote used Elkins' words to create the scene of Elkins in his cell where he kept water from his sink constantly running and his mattress wet from fear of being burned alive.

The team behind Blind Injustice says that although this opera tells Ohio stories, they are not so different from those in other parts of the country where innocence projects are at work. The opera's overarching call for awareness can resonate with audiences universally.

"People need to be aware that innocent people go to prison every day," Nancy Smith, an exoneree falsely accused of child molestation, says. Smith says that the opera has given her, and others like her, a new voice. "It's not just something that happens every now and then. Every day, somebody that is innocent of a crime is going to prison."

Listen to the full aired story at the audio link.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Cincinnati Opera premieres a new work this week that puts America's criminal justice system on trial. It is called "Blind Injustice," and it's based on a book of the same name by former federal prosecutor Mark Godsey about six people wrongly convicted in Ohio. Elizabeth Kramer has the story.

ELIZABETH KRAMER, BYLINE: As a University of Cincinnati law professor, Mark Godsey works with students to correct cases of wrongfully convicted persons in Ohio. He took on this role after getting involved in the innocence movement, but that was after years of working as a federal prosecutor in the Southern District of New York.

MARK GODSEY: I had been in denial about a lot of the problems in the system as a prosecutor, and I'd been very sort of arrogant about it.

KRAMER: He had a change of heart after working on wrongful conviction cases. That work prompted him to co-found the Ohio Innocence Project and write his 2017 book "Blind Injustice."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT MAKES A PERSON?")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Singing) When killers and perverts come calling, you need me. I don't care about your color, your age, your sex, your god. You need me. Without me, it's only chaos. I am the prosecutor.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) He is the prosecutor.

KRAMER: The idea of making an opera came months before the book's publication, when Ohio Innocence Project members began talking about a choral work with Cincinnati's Young Professionals Choral Collective.

EVANS MIRAGEAS: From that, the conversation snowballed into saying, wait a minute; there's an opera here.

KRAMER: That's Evans Mirageas, Cincinnati Opera's artistic director. He soon had librettist David Cote and director and dramaturge Robin Guarino working with six exonerees in the book. Guarino recalls the interviews with the exonerees.

ROBIN GUARINO: And we were so struck by their incredible storytelling. They were so amazingly rendered. You could see them visually.

KRAMER: Last week, the company performed at a Cincinnati church. One piece tells a story as Cote heard it from one of the exonerees known as the East Cleveland Three - African American teenagers who spent two decades in prison for murder, based on the false testimony of a 14-year-old girl. Cote remembers how that came together.

DAVID COTE: He took a piece of paper from my pad, and he started drawing the diagram of the street. And that became a libretto of "Scene Of The Crime," with him describing the street. And this - there's a blind spot here, and there's a bridge that comes over here.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SCENE OF THE CRIME")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Singing) 'Cause you can't see the traffic round the bend.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) It's a blind, blind, blind, blind spot.

KRAMER: About 40% of the libretto is directly from interviews. Some exonerees discussed experiences rarely shared with anyone.

Clarence Elkins conveyed a dark moment. He was convicted for the rape and murder of his mother-in-law and the rape of his 6-year-old niece. In his prison cell, Elkins was frightened and became paranoid.

CLARENCE ELKINS: And so I'm like, what is going on? And all this screaming and the hollering and the gang talks and, you know, all those types of things that I'm experiencing, you know - and I just - I thought I was being plotted to be, you know, killed.

KRAMER: Cote used Elkins' words to create the scene of him in his cell, where he kept water from his sink constantly running and his mattress wet from fear of being burned alive.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CLARENCE IN HELL")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Singing) And I barricaded myself in the back corner of my cell, and I wet everything down - even the blankets - everything. I put water on everything - everything but my Bible.

KRAMER: "Blind Injustice" has a rich soundscape by Scott Davenport Richards.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EUGENE IS FREE")

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Eugene is free.

SCOTT DAVENPORT RICHARDS: You hear pop music. You hear vernacular music, jazz, blues. You hear film scores - in which all of this vocabulary is used.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EUGENE IS FREE")

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Eugene is free.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Singing) I can taste.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Eugene is free.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Singing) I can feel.

NANCY SMITH: People need to be aware that innocent people go to prison every day.

KRAMER: Nancy Smith, an exoneree falsely accused of child molestation, says the opera has given her a new voice and voice to others like her.

SMITH: It's not just something that happens every now and then. Every day, somebody that is innocent of a crime is going to prison.

KRAMER: The team behind "Blind Injustice" say although this opera tells Ohio stories, they are not so different from those across the country, where other innocence projects are working.

For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Kramer.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EUGENE IS FREE")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Singing) Find me a little love. I can laugh. I can run. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.