In Conviction, Hilary Swank portrays Betty Anne Waters, the real-life woman who earned her law degree and fought for 18 years to prove the innocence of her wrongfully convicted brother. We spoke with Betty Anne Waters and lawyer Barry Scheck about the film and Scheck’s Innocence Project, which works on behalf of unjustly imprisoned individuals.
Expanding to more theaters this weekend, the critically acclaimed film Conviction tells the inspiring true story of Betty Anne Waters (played by Hilary Swank) and her 18-year struggle to prove the innocence of her brother Kenny (played by Sam Rockwell), who was wrongfully convicted of murder. As a working mom and high school dropout, Betty Anne did the unthinkable: she got her GED and put herself through law school in an effort to represent her brother. She enlisted the help of Barry Scheck (played by Peter Gallagher), a well-known lawyer and co-founder of the Innocence Project, and they were able to prove Kenny innocent through the use of DNA testing. UrbanFaith spoke to Waters and Scheck about this extraordinary story.
URBAN FAITH: How did it come about that Hollywood wanted to make a movie about you and your brother’s story? What was it like when they approached you?
BETTY ANNE WATERS: Well, it all started the day my brother was released. It [the story] went through the AP. It just took on a life of its own. My phone never stopped ringing, and it was Hollywood. And, of course, I was trying to ignore it, but my brother would not ignore it. He’s like, “Oh boy, we’re making a movie!” There was just no way out of that.
Then I started thinking about it. If I didn’t decide to go with someone, somebody else would make the movie and it wouldn’t be the one I wanted — it wouldn’t be the truth. Then I thought I have the perfect opportunity to help other innocent people in prison. With that being said, I couldn’t say no. We met with producer Andy Carsh [a friend of Barry Scheck’s], and we just fell in love with him. One of the reasons why is because he is the first one to say that, yes, this movie is about Betty Anne, but Kenny is a character, in and of himself, that needs to be portrayed. That’s really all I had to hear.
At the movie screening, you said you wanted to see changes made to the justice system. What kind of specific changes do you want to see happen?
WATERS: For instance, when people are being interrogated, it should be videotaped — audio/videotaped — because that speaks volumes. Eyewitness identification — the line-up should be done differently. Everything should be videotaped. You can see how this person became the suspect they became. There should be checks and balances everywhere — on prosecutors, police officers. They have too much power. When I think of my case, Nancy Taylor [the police dispatcher who arrested Kenny] was not even a police officer and she was in charge of a capital murder case. How can that be? My brother never should’ve been arrested, never mind convicted. The evidence showed from the very first day that he was innocent.
How did you come up with the idea of going to law school to help your brother?
WATERS: It didn’t happen quite the way it says in the movie. It really happened after my brother lost all of his appeals. During his appeals process, I was living in Florida. We conversed on the phone at least a couple times a week, and I’d come to visit him. And he lost his appeal, and I hadn’t heard from him in a couple weeks and it turned into a month. I was hysterical. I finally got a call from him. It was really in the movie where the lawyer says [Kenny’s] been in a hold in isolation because he tried to commit suicide. So I get a call from Kenny, and I’m really angry at him for trying to do that. And at the same time my heart was broken because he said, “How can I stay in prison for something I didn’t do?” And he said, in true Kenny form, “Betty Anne, the only way that I’m going to make it through here is if you go back to school, you go to law school, and you become my attorney, because I know you will get me out.” [Tearful pause.] How could I say no? Except I said, “Kenny, you do realize I have a GED and it could take a really long time?” And he said, “I don’t care how long it takes. If you promise me you’ll go to law school and go back to school, I promise you I’ll stay alive.”
What do you want people to learn from your story and Kenny’s story?
WATERS: I want people to be more aware of the Innocence Project and what they do. I want the innocent people in prison to get help. I don’t want people to still think — like I use to think — that everybody in prison is guilty. I want them to know what is really going on. There’s no way of knowing how many people are there [in prison] who don’t have DNA in their cases to begin with or that have had it and its been lost or destroyed. I just want people to take a closer look at the system and fix it.
Founded in 1992 by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, the Innocence Project has helped exonerate 260 wrongful convictions to date. Kenny Waters’ case was number 85. Of the 260 exonerations, 154 were African Americans, 79 were Caucasians, and 21 were Latinos. Every year the Innocence Project receives more than 3,000 letters from first-time writers seeking help. To learn more, check out www.innocenceproject.org.
URBAN FAITH: How did you get involved with the Innocence Project?
BARRY SCHECK: I was a public defender in the South Bronx for two and a half years, when I first got out of law school. Then I became a law professor, which I’ve been doing for 32 years, at the Cardozo Law School. And my old public defenders office around 1988 referred a case that involved an African American named Marion Coakley, who had been convicted of a break-in/rape on an afternoon when he had been at a prayer meeting, and there were 17 witnesses including the reverend. It was based on three eyewitnesses, and at that time, we tried to do DNA testing before it had ever been brought into the courts yet, and were unable to get a result. We were able, with the law students at our clinical program, to find other evidence to prove Marion innocent and get him exonerated and eventually compensated. That effort led my partner, Peter Neufeld, and me into an exploration of the power of DNA testing. We got involved on the ground floor to help transfer this marvelous technology from medical and research purposes to the criminal justice system.
What stands out to you about Kenny Waters’ case?
SCHECK: When you have a letter from somebody who’s a high school dropout — though she didn’t say that in the letter — that says she went to college and law school all for the purpose of getting her brother out of jail and has no interest in being a lawyer, that kind of gets your attention. And when she finds the evidence — as it is depicted in the movie — unfortunately, that was just the beginning of the process in some ways. The friendship that I’ve been able to forge with Betty Anne and her friends and family are extremely and equally important to me. This movie took nine and a half years to get made, but I think it’s among our most inspirational stories of people who have overcome impossible odds.
What are some of the major issues that need to be addressed about our justice system?
SCHECK: On our website, we outline the principal causes of wrongful convictions, which are mistaken eyewitness identification, false confessions, the use of jailhouse snitches, invalidated or improper use of forensic science, police or procedural misconduct, ineffective assistance of lawyers — nothing guarantees the conviction of an innocent more than a lawyer who is not adequate to do the job — then finally, and most difficult of all, the intractable problems of race in our justice system.
What sort of impact do you hope the film Conviction has on people and our justice system?
SCHECK: I hope it hits them in the heart because we have plenty of solutions that people understand. If you do eyewitness identification procedures correctly and follow best practices that have been developed by solid scientific research, you not only protect the innocent, but you enhance the capability of law enforcement to catch the real perpetrator. That is what is extremely important. We have legislation in states all across the country. We have some important bills in the United States Congress, including a bipartisan effort led by Senator Jim Webb of Virginia to establish a. We’re hopeful that perhaps this can be passed. There are so many solutions to problems in the criminal justice system, and there is a consensus. It’s just the will of people in all areas of the system coming to together to really do something about our overcrowding prisons, crime victims, and the wrongfully convicted.
How can the church community and people of faith get involved with this issue?
SCHECK: We make use of volunteers in all varieties of ways. We have 49 other Innocence Projects across the country in various jurisdictions, some of which do DNA cases and some of which do not do DNA cases. We’re working in state legislatures to get reforms passed that will both protect the innocent and enhance capabilities of law enforcement to identify the person who really committed the crime. The projects in our Innocence network are very idealistic, energetic, spiritual people who very much welcome and count upon religious communities to assist in their work. We always find that it is the people in the faith community who understand best what is going on for the wrongfully convicted and their families, as is indicated in this wonderful, inspiring movie Conviction.
What advice do you have for those who are dealing with the issue of wrongful conviction in one way or another?
SCHECK: If you have a loved one in prison or you are the victim of a miscarriage of justice, just never give up hope. Easy to say, but hard to do. But just look at the story of Betty Anne and Kenny. It can happen.
For more on crucial issues related to our nation’s criminal justice system, check out UMI’s new documentary.