'Blind Injustice' Opera Sets Out To Open Eyes About Wrongful Conviction Rates Based on former federal prosecutor Mark Godsey's book of the same title, the new opera Blind Injustice draws on detailed interviews with exonerees to put America's criminal justice system on trial.
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'Blind Injustice' Opera Sets Out To Open Eyes About Wrongful Conviction Rates

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

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

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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.

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