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The Power of Storytelling: The Ohio Innocence Project, Cincinnati Opera Collaboration Brings Exonerees' Stories to Life

The Ohio Innocence Project and Cincinnati Opera’s new venture brings to the stage the experiences of the wrongfully convicted in a unique form—an opera—to debut in 2019.

Cincinnati, OH—The Ohio Innocence Project (OIP) at the University of Cincinnati College of Law, Cincinnati Opera, and the Young Professionals Choral Collective (YPCC) announce the creation of a contemporary opera, Blind Injustice. The opera is based on Cincinnati Law Professor Mark Godsey’s book by same name and interviews with six OIP exonerees.  Blind Injustice will bring to life the grace, perseverance and forgiveness of these incredible men and women.  Premiering during the 2019 opera season, this is the first collaboration of its kind. The opera will be composed by William Menefield to a libretto by David Cote. CCM Professor Robin Guarino will act as stage director and dramaturg.

“The stories of these six exonerees are powerful tales of perseverance and forgiveness after going through an ordeal most of us can’t even imagine,” says Mark Godsey, OIP Director. “Although the stories are inspirational in their own right, the music exponentially magnifies their emotional impact. So we are incredibly excited that the public will get to learn more about Ricky Jackson, Clarence Elkins, Nancy Smith, and the East Cleveland 3 in such a compelling, moving way.  These individuals are heroes, bringing them to stage and sharing them with the public in this medium is the right thing to do.  We feel incredibly lucky to be working with the Opera and YPCC on this important project.”

Blind Injustice is a story about survival and dignity and asks the question: How could our criminal justice system allow six innocent people be wrongfully accused and convicted?” says Robin Guarino, stage director and dramaturg for the opera.  “It is an honor to tell their story and to work with my creative team of David Cote, librettist; William Menefield, composer; Mark Godsey, author; the OIP; the YPCC; and Cincinnati Opera on this groundbreaking project."

Interim Dean of the Cincinnati Law School, Verna Williams, says, “This extraordinary collaboration sheds light on the tragedy of wrongful convictions plaguing our criminal justice system.  Even more, it will demonstrate the grace of the exonerees enduring unimaginable hardship, the steadfastness of OIP working for their freedom, and the transformative power of this project for all involved.  We are thrilled to be part of this creative exercise in social justice.”

“Cincinnati Opera is looking for innovative ways to collaborate with nontraditional partner organizations in an authentic way, to tell current stories of societal importance,” said Marcus Küchle, director of artistic operations and new works development at Cincinnati Opera. “We are keenly interested in breaking through the stereotypes of what opera is in the 21st century, and this project is a perfect example of the type of new works Cincinnati Opera will pursue in future seasons.”

The Birth of Blind Injustice, the Opera
Blind Injustice is the result of a three-part collaboration between the OIP, the Young Professionals Choral Collective (YPCC), and Cincinnati Opera. The OIP’s young professionals group, which focuses on building awareness about the OIP, reached out to the YPCC, an 800-member amateur chorus, in hopes of hosting a joint event. Once the parties started talking, they realized the impact that a joint performance piece could have. Soon thereafter, the Cincinnati Opera team joined the conversations, resulting in the conception of a one-of-a-kind musical performance. This unique artistic team hopes that sharing the real-life case stories of exonerees will bring greater understanding and empathy to the work of the OIP and other innocence organizations, as well as create opportunities for broader conversations about wrongful conviction in the United States.

About the Opera
The opera will focus on the life and experiences of these OIP exonerees:

  • Ricky Jackson: He spent nearly 40 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit—murdering a money-order collector. Mr. Jackson was sentenced to death; it is now known that the conviction was based on a lie of a then-12-year-old boy. At the time of his release, Mr. Jackson set the record for the longest-serving person to be exonerated in U.S. history.
  • East Cleveland 3: Derrick Wheatt, Laurese Glover, and Eugene Johnson were wrongly incarcerated for 20 years. They were released after a key eyewitness recanted her testimony and after the revelation that information from police reports demonstrating their innocence had not been disclosed decades earlier.
  • Clarence Elkins: He spent seven and a half years in prison for a murder and rape he did not commit. Through DNA testing, Mr. Elkins was found innocent and the real perpetrator was caught; and  
  • Nancy Smith: A former bus driver, she served 15 years in prison for allegedly molesting small children in her care.  After being proven innocent and released, Ms. Smith’s case received national attention, including being featured on a one-hour episode of Dateline NBC.

In addition, the OIP will be represented through two characters. One will be a composite character representing Mark Godsey earlier in his career as a prosecutor and now as an innocence lawyer; the other will be a fictional OIP law student, representing all of the OIP law students who worked to free these individuals through the years.

“The unique thing about this format is that it allows us to share the story of wrongful conviction and exoneree experiences to a broad audience,” says Godsey. “These may be people whose only experience with wrongful conviction is through a television program. Now, they’ll be able to hear directly from the exonerees. They’ll share their painful stories and how they survived and overcame despite what happened to them. We know that once you hear their stories, your heart will be touched.”

Participants in the project include a variety of individuals:

  • From Cincinnati Opera: Marcus Küchle, Director of Artistic Operation and New Works Development and Co-Artistic Director of Opera Fusion: New Works
  • From the University of Cincinnati: Mark Godsey, the Daniel L. and Judith L. Carmichael Professor of Law and Director, OIP; Professor Robin Guarino, the J. Ralph Corbett Distinguished Chair in Opera, CCM, director and dramaturg for the opera.
  • Others: William Menefield, composer; David Cote, librettist and journalist; KellyAnn Nelson, Artistic Director, YPCC.

In addition to the operatic performance piece, Blind Injustice will include opportunities for community involvement. More information will be shared as plans are completed.


Media Hits

Read the story in the Cincinnati Enquirer (12/8): Innocence Project Leader's Book at Heart of Cincinnati Opera's New Work