Jessica Blank Interview

A Conversation with Erik Jensen and Jessica Blank

1. Why the death penalty? What is it about this issue that called you to action in such a determined and focused way? What do you hope to inspire in the readers of this book?

We have an incredible blueprint for justice in our Constitution. Unfortunately, much of the time, there is an enormous gap between the ideals laid out in the Constitution and what actually happens on the ground. Our justice system is rife with mistakes that profoundly affect the lives of thousands of human beings—not only the wrongly accused and convicted, but their families, the victims' families, and the rest of us ordinary citizens. The death penalty puts our justice system's shortcomings in stark relief. The consequences of a mistake, when it comes to capital punishment, are not abstract. They are life-and-death. As soon as we had met some of the individuals who had faced these life-and-death consequences, we felt an enormous responsibility to them and to their stories—and to help raise awareness of this issue, in order to help ensure that these fatal mistakes not keep happening to others. If we can inspire anything, we hope to spark the realization that with enough determination and commitment, any one of us can utilize (and build on) whatever resources we have and make change happen.

2. On your way to Chicago, you two seemed frustrated that you hadn’t made any key connections that could make the project successful. When little miracles occurred to help you through the roadblocks, was your faith in your relationship and the project renewed?

Absolutely. There's nothing like a moment of serendipity to remind you that forces larger than yourself are at work! Every time we hit a roadblock and lost hope, we just kept going—largely because of that sense of responsibility mentioned above—and every time, something or someone would turn up to help us through. After that happens a few times, you start to learn that if you just keep working from a service-oriented perspective, and stay tenacious, something will always turn up to help you—even if you don't know in advance what that something will be.

3. How did you grapple with and resolve your own stereotypes? In the beginning of the book it seems you were hyper-aware of your own place of privilege in the world. Despite your background, how did you become confident in the validity of your work?

We listened. And listened. Once we realized that this was about us getting out of the way of these stories—providing a channel and structure for them without layering a bunch of our own stuff on top—our concerns about our "right" to tell them dissipated. We realized that it wasn't us telling the stories, but the exonerees themselves. Our job was simply to make them into a play.

4. Did you ever feel like you couldn’t continue with the project? If so, what made you think this way and why? If not, what was the main force that sustained your determination and focus throughout the project?

Sure, we had moments of despair—as does anyone working on a huge, long-term project. There are times when the workload becomes overwhelming, when you get exhausted, when you hit a wall and don't know what will turn up to help you through. But those moments never lasted long. We always came back to the stories—to our sense of responsibility to them, and to the power of the stories themselves.

5. Henry’s story was eventually cut from the final play. In the final version of The Exonerated were you able to address the unique issues of the cognitively impaired within the criminal justice system?

Unfortunately, no. The play is based on first-person narratives, and we felt that if someone is unable to fully understand all the details of their case, that also means it's impossible for them to articulate those details. We were extremely frustrated by this challenge, but unable to find a way around it that worked theatrically. However, in 2002, the Supreme Court banned the execution of the mentally retarded, citing a "national consensus" against it. So, hopefully, that means that a national conversation around that particular issue has already been healthily established.

6. You share the story about your conversation with a woman and her daughter who was raped. Have you received more negative reactions? How did you deal with them?

Actually, we wouldn't characterize that conversation as a "negative reaction," even though it started as a conflict, because it led to greater understanding on both sides. We believe that dialogue with people who disagree with us is crucial, and we welcome challenges and questions. You can't have a democracy without lots of questions and vibrant, robust debate; we believe all of us should be confident enough to engage people of different points of view, and we welcome the opportunity to talk with people with diverse perspectives. However, dialogue is one thing; attacks are another. When the film came out, as we discuss in the afterword, a very few pro-death penalty individuals took the opportunity to launch media attacks on the play/film and the individuals in it. When you attack somebody with whom you disagree—as opposed to engaging them in dialogue—it has the effect of squelching healthy debate. We believe very strongly that this weakens our society, and we take issue with the aspect of our national media culture that is much more invested in cultivating attacks and yelling than informed, constructive conversation among differing points of view. We believe that our system would work much better if all of us devoted our resources to finding solutions and learning from each other rather than attempting to undermine and attack those with whom we might disagree.

7. Are you still in contact with any of the subjects from the play? Have you had any reunions since the last one mentioned in the book?

We are in contact with all of them, to differing degrees and in differing ways. Since the last one mentioned in the book, there have been no group reunions, but we've reunited with several of them individually, at performances of the play and elsewhere.

8. After the making of The Exonerated are you still working on projects together? If yes, how does working together change your relationship?

Absolutely! As well as acting, we work on writing and directing projects individually and together; some of our "together" projects include a new film about hate crime in the style of The Exonerated, in development for Court TV, and an independent film called Gimme Noise that we wrote with Bruce Kronenberg, an original Exonerated cast member. Our relationship was forged on working together, so we don't really know any other way! We find that working together means we know each other really well—not only as partners, but as artists, collaborators, and workers. It certainly adds challenges—we have to be very careful to not let work take over sometimes—but it also adds dimensions of admiration, understanding, and alliance that we might not have discovered otherwise. Plus, it's fun. Individually, our acting and writing jobs keep us busy, but we enjoy our time spent working together most of all.

9. Are you currently involved with any social or political groups that continue to fight capital punishment?

We will always have relationships with several groups who helped enormously with the development of The Exonerated, including the Center on Wrongful Convictions, the Innocence Project, Death Penalty Focus, and the ACLU. Further, we want to sound a note of support for a new organization, the Life After Exoneration Program, which is working to fill a crucial gap by helping provide basic services for the newly exonerated. Most people don't know that in most cases, when you're exonerated and released, you receive little more than a pat on the back—no job counseling, no automatic restitution, no help reintegrating into society—less even than most paroled individuals get upon their release. LAEP is the only national organization we know of that is entirely dedicated to remedying this situation.