Correcting and Preventing Wrongful Convictions in D.C., Maryland and Virginia.

Conviction: The Ultimate Fight for Family

By Rachel Cicurel

Photo by Rob Batzdorff

Every year in Hollywood, filmmakers romanticize real life. Even movies supposedly based on true stories tend to feature characters who are smarter, wittier and more attractive than any real people ever are, not to mention the coincidences and other turns of events than seem unlikely to have ever really happened.

But for Betty Anne Waters and others across the nation, Fox Searchlight’s biopic Conviction isn’t an escape from reality. Rather, it’s a brutal re-imagining of their everyday lives.

Conviction tells the true story of Betty Anne Waters, a woman from the small town of Ayer, Massachusetts, whose older brother, Kenneth Waters, was convicted of a murder he did not commit and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Betty Anne—who had earned her GED but had no higher education—refused to accept her brother’s fate. She put herself through both college and law school in order to become his attorney and fight for his freedom. In heart-breaking detail, the movie recounts her 18-year struggle to right the terrible injustice that had befallen her family.

Thanks to the brilliant work of director Tony Goldwyn and a cast that includes Hilary Swank as Betty Anne and Sam Rockwell as Kenny, the film draws viewers into the lives, struggles and ultimate triumphs of the characters. It raises profound questions about how far one would go to protect those who matter most in their life. But if the film is truly successful, it will also leave viewers with the harsh reality that the American justice system is broken and that fixing it will be no easy task.

Kenny’s story is just one of hundreds. Since 1993, 259 people have been exonerated when DNA testing has conclusively proven them innocent. These men and women served an average of 13 years behind bars for crimes that they did not commit; 17 of them served time on death row. And these statistics do not include scores of additional people who have been released based on evidence of innocence that does not involve DNA testing – nor do they include thousands of people still in prison who are claiming innocence. A recent study actually suggests that 10,000 people are wrongfully convicted every year.

These tragedies are products of eyewitness misidentification, false confessions, junk science, informants or snitches, bad lawyering, and, as in Kenny’s case, a combination of government and police misconduct and society’s need for closure when grappling with terrible crimes.

“In this country, especially, we like things to be black and white,” says Tony Goldwyn, Conviction’s Director. “We like certainty and we want answers and we want accountability immediately. We want solutions and we want to move forward. We’re very proud of our democracy and our judicial system which perhaps is the best system we can come up with but … I hope that people see that a lot of questions need to be asked.”

Prior to her brother’s wrongful conviction, Betty Anne had never asked these questions. In her experience, the justice system stepped in when wrongdoings occurred; during Kenny’s previous brushes with the law, for example, he owned up to his guilt and faced the consequences. Therefore, she firmly believed that all people convicted were guilty.

But after her experience with the police officer who led the investigation in Kenny’s case, it becomes clear that Betty Anne has good reason to have lost her faith in the system. As the film illustrates, Kenny’s conviction is almost entirely due to that officer’s unwavering commitment to pinning him for the crime, regardless of truth. What the film doesn’t reveal, however, is that at the time of Kenny’s arrest, the officer in question wasn’t an officer at all—she was a dispatcher in the police department and a secretary to the chief. In fact, Betty Anne explains that just weeks prior to Kenny’s arrest, she was asked to stop acting as though she were an officer.

“She was a woman in a man’s world in the ‘80s,” she says. “She wanted to prove herself and she thought this would be a perfect way to do it. ‘I’ll solve this murder.’”

Though the intimate details of the officer’s efforts to do so were too complex for a two-hour montage, Betty Anne says the officer signed off on documentation regarding bloody fingerprints found at the crime scene that excluded Kenny as a possible perpetrator before he was even charged with the murder, but such documents stayed buried until attorney Barry Scheck found them years after Kenny was exonerated.

But as Scheck, played by Peter Gallagher, says to Betty Anne bluntly in the film, “DA’s don’t like to admit they put an innocent person in prison.” And therefore, in the wake of the national premiere of this movie, Betty Anne, a modern day hero, is calling for prosecutors to be under the same cautionary scrutiny as our primary branches of government. “They have no checks and balances. The President has checks and balances, but prosecutors don’t,” she says.

As the past two decades have shown, the media and the public love stories in which the innocent are exonerated—the first shots of an innocent man’s release from prison are always joyous, and the stories are often celebrated as a sign that the system works. Unfortunately, people rarely want to know what it takes to either create or uncover a wrongful conviction. But thanks to Conviction, perhaps this will no longer be the case. Aside from offering the audience a bird’s eye view into the world of police misconduct, the film erases all notions that overturning wrongful convictions is as simple or common as it often seems in the media. Whether it’s the inexplicably difficult search for the physical evidence, or the touching moment after Kenny’s release where he meets a daughter he can barely recognize, the audience will hopefully no longer overlook the decades of struggle that go into the outcome, and rather recognize that while happy endings make every ounce of effort worth it, such success stories are few and far between.