A quest for justice and the bond of friendship in play at WMU

May 1, 2013

Von Washington and other actors in rehearsal
Credit WMUK

The true story of a friendship that grew out of a quest for justice is the basis of the play Justice for Maurice Henry Carter.

It’s being staged Thursday through Saturday in York Arena at Western Michigan University’s Gilmore Theatre Complex. Performances will be Thursday, Friday and Saturday night at 8:00. There is also a Saturday matinee at 2:00.

Actors Garrard Macleod and Von Washington play the main characters Doug Tjapkes and Maurice Carter. Macleod plays Tjpakes, a one-time radio journalist who worked for nine years to get Carter out of prison. Tjapkes, who lives in Spring Lake, says he was convinced that Carter did not shoot an off duty police officer in Benton Harbor in 1973. He says the evidence, including eyewitness testimony, didn’t support Carter’s 1976 conviction of attempted murder. While working on the case, Tjapkes says he and Carter became good friends: 

Doug Tjapkes:

“So eventually over a period of time we got to be so close that my family became his, he of course didn’t have kids, and wife or grandkids and all that stuff. So my kids and my grandkids became his, he knew them all and would ask when he called me each week. We had to review what very child and every grandkid was doing and how they were before he would even think about talking about anything else” 

Garrard Macleod (foreground) and other actors rehearse
Credit WMUK

Tjapkes is author of the book Sweet Freedom, Breaking the Bondage of Maurice Carter which is the basis for the play. Director Von Washington also plays the role of Maurice Carter. Washington says he was attracted to the story and its message.

Von Washington:

“The thing I liked about it was how the two playwrights, each of them being of a different race, came together and blended their understanding of one side of the track and the other side of the track on a topic that was very, very important to me. Because when I was a young fella growing up in the United States of America in the 50’s and the 60’s, one of the greatest fears that we had as young men that we would end up going to prison.”

Washington says he relates to the story in part because he worked in the prison system, and also because of trouble he ran into while serving in the army.

Von Washington:

“In Montana, I got into a scuffle and almost ended up spending some real time. That was the greatest fear that I had then. And by the chance of life, my father couldn’t help me, a white major who I worked for was the one who helped me. So once again, I got a little part of my life which is sort of mirroring this, and I could not avoid being involved with this.”

Doug Tjapkes says when he got involved, Carter was not well known even in Benton Harbor where the crime happened, but the case eventually got national attention. Boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, no relation, visited Maurice Carter in prison. Hurricane Carter served 18 years in prison in connection with a shooting in a bar in Paterson, New Jersey. The man who was the subject of a Bob Dylan song and later a movie starring Denzel Washington had his conviction set aside and has been free since 1985. Maurice Carter had his sentence commuted in 2004. But he was in poor health and died just four months after his release. Tjapkes says it’s one of many tragedies surrounding Maurice Carter.

Doug Tjapkes:

“Even sadder than that, he was never exonerated. When we finally found out, he was so ill, we got a medical release for him. But we never did clear his name.”

Former Governor Jennifer Granholm’s statement commuting Maurice Carter’s sentence mentioned his health and support for the decision from the Berrien County Prosecutor and a Berrien County Judge, but does not mention the merits of the case. Doug Tjapkes has launched the group Humanity for Prisoners and says he believes there are many others in prison, like Maurice Carter, serving time for crimes they did not commit.

Doug Tjapkes:

“Whatever you see and hear and read may not be the total story. I used to think, even when I was a reporter that when the prosecutor issued a statement that guy was guilty. Well I’m finding out that is absolutely not the case.”

The performance is being sponsored by the WMU Theatre Department and the Racial Healing Grant. A question and answer session with some people involved in the case is scheduled after the Saturday matinee performance. Tjapkes says copies of his book will also be available during all of the performances.