It’s going to blow your mind that this actually happened,” University of Cincinnati law professor Mark Godsey says to a luncheon crowd on an April afternoon. He runs down a list of reasons why Nancy Smith—a school bus driver convicted of child molestation in 1994—should have never gone to prison.
“Nancy would pick up the kids, drop them off, and then go to another job—Meals on Wheels—and then come back and take the kids home,” explains Godsey, director of the Ohio Innocence Project. “There were records at her job showing she did that in between. There were mileage records showing she had done the school route. The kids were present at school that day. She had a bus aide on the bus. The defense attorney did absolutely no investigation.”
Still, Smith spent nearly 15 years in an Ohio prison. Away from her four children, her parents, and her siblings. She missed the births of eight of her grandchildren, and she prayed and prayed for a miracle. God answered, she says, when Godsey and the OIP took her case. With their help, Smith got a new trial, was acquitted, and was released in 2009.
She’s free now and able to stand next to Godsey and tell her story. “Until this happened to me, I thought only guilty people went to prison,” Smith tells the audience. “I thought you had to be guilty ‘beyond a reasonable doubt.’”
Maria Miller will now spread Smith’s story. Miller sings the role of Smith in the upcoming performances of Blind Injustice, a new work commissioned by the Cincinnati Opera opening July 22. Based on Godsey’s book by the same name, the opera focuses on six of the 28 people the OIP has helped free and on Godsey himself. It explores the stages of Godsey’s life, from his time as a young prosecutor in New York who thought wrongful convictions were flukes to the defense attorney and activist for the improperly imprisoned he is now.
At last count Innocence Projects, active now in every state, have released some 2,400 people who served over 22,000 years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit.
If you think about it, there are no more fitting characters for an opera. The exonerees went to hell and back. Godsey had to take a close look at a system he thought he knew and trusted and uncover its flaws. Their stories include twists and turns stranger than fiction. One exoneree (spoiler alert) proved his own innocence by collecting a cigarette butt from the person who actually murdered the person he was incarcerated for killing. The men happened to be in prison together.
The stories are tragedies, but also tales of heroism and redemption. “To know the depth of what they had to persevere, what they’ve overcome—it’s like meeting a hero,” Miller says. “Set to music, it is so beautiful and moving and heartbreaking. When you’re in the audience I think you’ll understand what an honor it is to just be in the room with these incredible people.”
How did the Ohio Innocence Project go from the real world to the stage? Believe it or not, happy hour. Two young professionals groups (the OIP YP group and the YP Choral Collective) met up because a person in one group was dating a person in the other group. At some point, the discussion turned to how compelling the OIP stories could be on stage. They brought the idea to Godsey and choral director KellyAnn Nelson, and the idea moved on up the chain to folks at UC’s College-Conservatory of Music and the Cincinnati Opera. It resulted in a piece directed by Robin Guarino, head of UC’s opera department. The words are by librettist David Cote, music by composer Scott Davenport Richards, and production design by Andromache Chalfant.
“The opera will bring to life the grace, perseverance, and forgiveness of these men and women using a small cast, a chorus composed of YPCC members, and a 12-piece orchestra,” according to the show’s description. It will be presented in Music Hall’s intimate Wilks Studio. All five performances are already sold out.
Smith—who now works at a dog grooming business and spends oodles of her time with her kids and grandkids—says, at first, it was hard to imagine herself portrayed in an opera until she attended a production workshop. “They really can take our stories and bring them out to people,” Smith says. “And let them see that, you know, there are bad things that happen to good people.”
A lot of good people, Godsey says. At last count Innocence Projects, active now in every state, have released some 2,400 people who served over 22,000 years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit.