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The Exonerated:  A Pedagogical Exercise


Crimcast is a virtual resource devoted to critical conversations about criminology and criminal justice issues. Our blogposts, twitter feeds, podcasts and other content provide an overview of trends, research, commentary and events of interest to criminal justice practitioners, academics and the general public. CrimCast is sponsored by The Center for Crime and Popular Culture, St. Francis College, Brooklyn, NY.

The Exonerated: A Pedagogical Exercise

Nickie Phillips

The Exonerated:  A Pedagogical Exercise Adapted From Non-Fiction Narrative Dramaturgical Work to Stimulate Critical Thinking Among Sociology/Criminology/Legal Studies/Anthropology Students In November, the editors of CrimCast posted a review of my piece, The Exonerated: Theater Speaks the Words of Life Before and After Death Row, published on CrimCast. I sent around copies to some colleagues in a variety of disciplines, prompting a kind and enthusiastic response from my friend, Professor Barbara Hart, who teaches Criminal Justice at the University of Texas at Tyler. Professor Hart, whose Texas teaching has her situated geographically far from the New York theater community and The Culture Club (which was the original and recent home of the theatrical production, which included A-list movie and theater stars, and even more compellingly, actual exonerees engaging in the staged reading of their transcribed words) asked the following: “The play is such a testament to the problems with the death penalty.  I wonder how to work it into the curriculum – or least excerpts from it” (e-mail from Barbara Hart, December 3, 2012).  This has been a question for me, as well, as students cannot necessarily afford theater tickets and given the logistical fact that most plays are short lasting (to a “season” of a semesterly nature of Fall and Spring in the New York cycles). Accordingly, during some semesters, I show the 90-minute film version of the play.  For me, this works especially well among evening students (where I have a 3-hour chunk, and during the course of a semesterly team project, about which I presented at the 2012 International Visual Sociology Association, in a paper entitled, “The Team Project: Introducing College Students to Field Work as a Sociological Technique”).  In fact, I have this in class showing when I cannot get my classes to an actual cinema or theater with a show relating to course materials and topics (read, if I have a shorter class, such as last semester’s 2-hour Tuesday slot, or if there are what we euphemize as “weather events”). Also, during some semesters, I offer an essay option on either the take home research exercise or the final in room essay.  Here, in honor of a colleague who is currently teaching an intensive multi-hour per day winter session (in which a variety of exercises each day are necessary for intellectual and attention survival of both students and instructors), I am reprinting the team project version of the exercise, though it can certainly be adapted for individual work (rather than group work).  This particular exercise, for a Principles of Sociology class, was broken down into two classes (a 2-hour viewing and discussion, and 1-hour team work day), to style after a fashion of the original 3-hour evening class pedagogical design.  The assignment is as originally constructed, and includes accommodations for students who had excused absences (a good model generally);  I note that the final “handin” of the project was deferred due to complications arising out of Hurricane Sandy, but that each team produced interesting and fresh perspectives.


On October 23, 2012, the class had a full viewing of the 2005 movie, The Exonerated, based upon the real life experiences of 6 exonerated death row prisoners (and the deceased executed Jesse, who was Sunny's husband).

On Thursday, October 25, 2012, the class had a debriefing worksheet exercise, at which full attendance is required for this assessed exercise. (Another way of saying this is that anyone awol without documented proof of immediate personal involvement of themselves in a birth, a death, a hospitalization or an incarceration or something that Pappas deems equally dramatic, with full proof, will get a 0 for this evolution of the team project).

TEAMS HAVE BEEN ASSIGNED TO EACH HAVE ONE SPECIAL EXONEREE TO FOLLOW: RED:  Gary (Brian Dennehy) ORANGE: Robert Earl Hayes (David Brown, Jr.) YELLOW:  Kerry Max Cook (Aidan Quinn) GREEN:  David Keaton (Danny Glover) BLUE:  Sunny (Susan Sarandon) INDIGO:  Jesse (no actor, as executed prior to exoneration) VIOLET:  Delbert Tibbs (Delroy Lindo)

YOUR TEAM COLOR IS ____________________________________









1. What were the personal troubles and/or areas in which s/he was marginalized (example race, ethnicity, gender, sex, sexuality, socio-economic status)?  What of these might have led to their PERSONAL TROUBLES (remember : "The Promise/The Sociological Eye”) and to their arrest? 2. What in particular do you think led to these exonerees being convicted at trial, notwithstanding that they were innocents?  Another way of asking this is what about the social institutions/social organizations came into play and marginalized them further. Please be specific and you answer should be DIFFERENT than to answer 1. 3. How was your designated exoneree socialized into becoming a prisoner (a convict) once incarcerated? Was it "traditional" socialization or was it deviant from social institutionalization generally? 4. What led to the appeal and release of your designated exoneree (or, for the team working on Jesse, what led to the exoneration and clearance of his good name post-mortem)? 5. Was your exoneree re-integrated (assimilated) back into society generally after his/her release?  What challenges did he/she face? How did your exoneree overcome these? PS You should feel free to refer to family structures, job structures, religious institutions and beliefs, material and non-material culture. 6. BONUS ROUND FOR +5 TOWARD THE MIDTERM ESSAY FOR EACH MEMBER WHO PARTICIPATES (SLACKERS GET NOTHING):  Consider the film’s dramaturgical construction (if you look in the back index of our textbook, there should be a 5 page entry listed).  Teams aiming for the brass ring should write at least 6 sentences (average team number is 6) describing what dramaturgy is, who is a major proponent of the sociological discussion of dramaturgy, how does dramaturgy relate in court, how does dramaturgy relate on the movie?

As an aside, in the class debrief, students who were both in favor of, and in opposition to, the death penalty, had an opportunity to voice and to hear different perspectives.  Perhaps some moved in their views, perhaps not, but all who spoke (and a large proportion of the class did so with enthusiasm and liveliness) had particularized comments that pointed them toward further critical thinking, with their teams, and perhaps with their friends, families and colleagues. Professor Barbara Hart pointed me toward sharing this exercise, and furthering easy access to a non-New York based viewing – and reviewing – student audience, and I thank my friend and colleague for so doing!

Demetra M. Pappas, JD, MSc, PhD teaches in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at St. Francis College, where she was named the 2011/2012 SGA Faculty Member of the Year.  Earlier this year, Greenwood Press published her first book, The Euthanasia/Assisted Suicide Debate, which focused upon the aspect of criminal liability of doctors who engage in life-shortening activity, and upon the role of the media in these cases in furthering the debate, both pro and con.