April 11, 2007 (3 articles)
Prison riot play questions death penalty, angers prosecutor
One of the nation's deadliest prison riots is the subject of a play that
questions the convictions of five inmates involved in the siege.
"Lucasville: The Untold Story of a Prison Uprising" was opening Wednesday
night in Portsmouth - just miles from the Southern Ohio Correctional
Facility on 14th anniversary of the start of the 11-day revolt.
Critics say the play's timing and opening-night location are insulting to
the people of Lucasville.
"A play, that's wonderful," sneered Gary Williams, who wrote the book,
"Siege on Lucasville," about hostage guard Larry Dotson. "A guard and nine
inmates die, and they're going to do a play? This issue has been hashed and
rehashed for 14 years. And why near Lucasville? It's still an open wound."
The American Civil Liberties Union will present the play in seven cities
this month, including Cleveland and Columbus. The production is based on the
2004 book of the same title.
"Using a different form like theater, you can really reach out to people and
appeal to a much broader audience," said ACLU spokesman Mike Brickner.
The play criticizes prosecutors' reliance on the testimony of informants to
send five men to death row for the killings of guard Robert Vallandingham
and nine inmates.
The writers, inmate rights activist Staughton Lynd and Gary Anderson, a
playwright and director from Redding, Calif., said they hope to take the
script nationally. They said the same issues that took place in Ohio -
informant testimony and the death penalty - resonate anywhere.
The two-hour play begins in the prison during the riots and ends in the
courtrooms, when five men - Jason Robb, George Skatzes, James Were, Carlos
Sanders and Keith LaMar - are convicted. In it, the authors accuse a key
informant, Anthony Lavelle, of killing Vallandingham with members of his
Lavelle's testimony eventually convicted Robb, Skatzes, Were and Sanders of
"Do you believe what's going on?" the stage manager asks the audience. "It's
like a courtroom version of 'Lets Make a Deal.'"
Mark Piepmeier, the prosecutor who oversaw the Lucasville cases, said he is
outraged by the play. He said the inmates' testimonies were corroborated by
State Highway Patrol investigators and by the inmates' own actions. For
example, Skatzes, who served as a prison negotiator, was on tape making
demands and saying that someone would die if the inmates weren't satisfied.
Piepmeier said he had little choice but to use inmates as witnesses, as they
were the only people there. The guards taken hostage were blindfolded.
"The location and date are not a coincidence. It's offensive," Piepmeier
said. "You can see the agenda. If Staughton Lynd had his way, every prison
would be closed and we would all get along. That sounds nice, but it's not
Lynd and Anderson said they wanted to push the play because the five men are
running out of appeals.
"Our narrow project is to show that the convictions of the five men
sentenced to death depended on unreliable snitch testimony and should be
reversed," said Lynd, who plays a bit role as a judge in the drama. "Our
broader project is to call into question the view that death-penalty trials
in Ohio are fair and impartial."
The cast includes Kunta Kenyatta, a former Lucasville inmate who changed his
name from Jerome Lennon. Kenyatta, 38, spent the riot locked in solitary
confinement. He plays LaMar, his old friend.
"There was so much tension," Kenyatta said of the prison before the riot.
"There was so much pressure. There were so many snitch games."
On most of the tour, the Lucasville play will be paired with another
production, also written by Anderson, called "Clarence Darrow: The Search
for Justice." That play honors the 150th anniversary of the defense lawyer's
birth in northeast Ohio.
Source : Associated Press