HIGHLAND PARK, NJ - The United States is apparently the only country in the world where children are given death sentences.
A new documentary play by Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg titled Life, Death, and Life Again: Children Sentenced to Die in Prison is being performed with coLAB Arts at the Reformed Church in Highland Park. The play will tell the true stories of people who committed violent crimes as children and were sentenced to die in prison, and one person who advocates for forgiveness of those prisoners.
From 2014 to 2017, Weill-Greenberg conducted interviews until she decided which stories to highlight in this production.
“I cast the net out pretty wide and I did a lot of interviews and got to talk to so many amazing, incredible people,” said Greenberg. “Then I was able to see how the stories fit together to make certain scenes. The three stories included in the play are from four interviews that fit together the most seamlessly into a narrative.”
Weill-Greenberg added: "The stories featured in this play, from a teenager wanting to look tough in front of his friends, to a ninth grader who is crying, apologized to the woman he had just shot, to a man who befriended the young woman who murdered his grandmother, illustrate the extraordinary potential for redemption and forgiveness."
Producing director and co-founder of coLAB Arts, Dan Swern talked about the importance of this production.
"Life, Death, Life Again invites us into the lives of those directly impacted by extreme sentencing," said Swern. "This play shows the raw humanity of those sentenced to die in prison, and forces us to ask ourselves: Is this justice?"
Bill Pelke is one of the people featured in the play. He founded the organization Journey of Hope after his grandmother was killed by a juvenile who was sentenced to death. He forgave that person and even helped with a prison release. He hopes that people see the play and come away with a message of forgiveness.
“I believe that it will show that juveniles deserve a second chance, they they’re not throwaway kids who commit these terrible crimes,” said Pelke.
The other stories featured in the play are:
Sean Taylor: When Sean was 17, he shot at a house and killed one of the occupants. In 1990, he was sentenced to life in prison but was released in 2011, after then-Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter commuted his sentence. During his incarceration, Taylor left the gang he had joined at 14, and committed himself to transforming his life.
Tiffany Taylor: Tiffany and Sean met as children, then drifted apart, and reconnected after his release and later married.
Joe: Joe has an active legal case and is still incarcerated so his name and certain identifying details have been changed. At 14, in the late 1990s, he shot the homeowner of a house he had broken into. He was quickly arrested and, at 15, he was sentenced to life in prison. He was one of the thousands affected by the Montgomery v. Louisiana decision.
In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court banned death sentences for children in Simmons v. Roper. The Court issued the decision in Graham v. Florida in 2010, banning life without parole sentences for juveniles convicted of non-homicide offenses. Then in 2012, in Miller v. Alabama, and 2016, Montgomery v. Louisiana, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that all of the people serving mandatory life without parole sentences for crimes committed as juveniles must be resentenced.
Two performances are scheduled. One is Thursday, April 12, from 7-10 pm at Reformed Church of Highland Park, located at 19 South Second Avenue, in Highland Park. Free tickets are still available for reserve at the coLab Arts website.
The other performance is Sunday, April 15, from 2-5 pm at Zimmerli Art Museum of New Brunswick, tickets are sold out but there is a waiting list that you can be added to by calling the Zimmerli at 848-932-7237.
Each performance will be followed by a discussion. Thursdays discussion will be on Radical Forgiveness and will feature: Pastor Tim Jones of Bethany Baptist Church in Newark and Bill Pelke of Journey of Hope. Sunday’s discussion will focus on Sentencing and the Criminal Justice System and will feature: Josh Rovner of The Sentencing Project, Marsha Levick of the Juvenile Law Center, and the Rev. Charles Boyer from the Bethel AME of Woodbury
The play is being produced by coLAB Arts and is underwritten with a grant from the New Jersey Council on the Humanities. The play is sponsored by: Anti-Poverty Network of NJ, Bethany Baptist Church, the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, Churches Improving Communities, #Cut50, Journey of Hope...From Violence to Healing, Lutheran Episcopal Advocacy Ministry of New Jersey, Meta Theater Company, NeighborCorps, New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, NJ Spark, Program in Criminal Justice, Rutgers University-New Brunswick, Reformed Church of Highland Park, The Sentencing Project, Unitarian Universalist FaithAction New Jersey, Youth First, Who is My Neighbor?, YAP-Northern-Metro NJ & DE, and the Zimmerli Art Museum.