Staging Justice: Karen Torley speaks on Johnny Brown's "A Letter from Death Row"

Feature by Anna Battista | 17 Mar 2006

Theatre is a powerful instrument: a play can move and enrage its audience, reveal hidden truths, inform and counter-inform. Think about Dario Fo's political farces, for example, often used as a social critique against mainstream culture, the roles and responsibilities of government authorities, absurd bureaucracy, injustices and American imperialism.

In this vein, the play performed simultaneously on January 25th in London, Dublin, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Orkney can be considered a piece of political theatre. The piece, entitled "A Letter from Death Row", written by Johnny Brown, attempts to reconstruct the legal proceedings against Kenny Richey.

Richey, from Edinburgh, was sentenced to death in 1987 for murdering two-year-old Cynthia Collins by setting fire to an apartment in Ohio. Despite winning an appeal in January last year, Richey is still on Death Row as the State of Ohio attempts to free him. An appeals court ruled last May that Richey should have been retried within 90 days or be set free, but the US Supreme Court overturned the ruling last November, asking it to reconsider its decision. For many human rights groups - Amnesty International included - Richey's case is a miscarriage of justice.

"I was delighted about the play because I thought it was another way of telling the story and perhaps of making Kenny more real to people," Richey's fiancée Karen Torley states. Karen first thought about arranging a reading on Kenny's case two and a half years ago, after going to an event organised by the Miscarriages of Justice Organisation (MOJO), where she saw actor Gary Lewis reading from TC Campbell's books Indictment and The Wilderness Years. "I thought it would have been great if I could have done something like that for Kenny," Karen says, "so I wrote a chapter about how Kenny felt, he made a couple of changes to it, and then we gave it to MOJO. Actor Tam Dean Burn read it during another event and told me he would have liked to do something about the case. He later spoke to Johnny Brown and that's how the note I wrote with Kenny turned into 'A Letter from Death Row'."

The London show, featuring Tam Dean Burn, was broadcast on Resonance 104.4FM, while Burns Night readings took place in Edinburgh, at the Scottish Parliament and at The Stand in Glasgow, and in Dublin, where the performance, presented by Irvine Welsh, featured Gary Lewis as Richey and Patrick Joseph Byrnes as Basinger.

Karen saw the reading at the Parliament, organised by SpartaKi productions and directed by Helen-Marie O'Malley, but she also attended the Glasgow performance at ÒranMór. "All the actors of the Edinburgh cast were great, especially the two main characters, Sean Hay, who played Kenny, and Ken Hutcheon, who starred as prosecutor Randall Basinger," she remembers. "He was really superb as he really put his heart and soul into it. There was a point in which I really had to convince myself he was just playing a part. I will never forget his performance as long as I live. There were quite a few people who came to the Glasgow performance who didn't know who Kenny was, but there were also people who travelled all the way from Dingwall to see it. I'm still waiting to get a copy of the performance in Ireland, but I got a couple of text messages and emails from Irvine Welsh and Johnny Brown saying that Gary Lewis was absolutely fantastic."

There are plans to take "A Letter from Death Row" to the States and, possibly, to Ohio, while a one-woman show on Karen's campaign for Kenny might also be staged in future. In the meantime, the campaign to free Kenny Richey continues.

Visit the official Kenny Richey Campaign website at