“Convict.” Verb: to prove or find a person guilty. Noun: a person serving a prison sentence.
“Conviction”: an unshakable belief in something without need for proof or evidence.
The title of the film Conviction is perfectly ambiguous, focusing on both the guilty verdict of the defendant in a murder case and on the unshakable belief of his sister that he is innocent. The movie is based on the true story of Betty Anne Waters, who spent 18 years earning a GED, a BA, and finally a law degree in order to get her brother released from prison, and who now serves as an attorney for the Innocence Project. Along the way she lost her marriage and fulltime custody of her children; her brother Kenny lost his relationship with his daughter, who was a toddler when he was arrested. As presented in the film, the case involved dirty politics, suborned witnesses, and the rush to remove criminal types from the community, even if they are not actually guilty. And it demonstrated the indefatigable love of a sister and a brother.
The film opens with a walk through the bloody murder scene, reminding the audience that a brutal crime has been committed, and a victim is dead. It’s appropriate to remember the victim in any crime story. But convicting the wrong man is also a crime of violence, a crime often overlooked in the rush to convince voters that the district attorney’s office is doing its job to keep criminals off the streets.
After the murder, Kenny (Sam Rockwell) is immediately brought in for questioning, because he has a record as a barroom brawler and petty thief. Kenny takes the arrest with the wisecracking aplomb of a man who is constantly hauled downtown every time a crime has been committed. Betty Anne (Hilary Swank) arrives at the jail with the same longsuffering resignation of a sister who has done it all before. He is released, and all is forgotten — until two years later, when he is arrested for the murder and eventually convicted, with a sentence of life without parole.
The film uses flashbacks to show the kind of life Kenny and Betty Anne had as children. Their mother has nine children by seven men, and is often absent. As they grow up, they are in and out of foster homes and in and out of trouble, mostly trespassing and vandalism. Kenny in particular is seen as a wisecracking hothead, the kind of guy who has a biting sense of humor and makes everyone laugh, even when they’re exasperated. Because of their difficult background, the two siblings are unusually close.
When Kenny is convicted, Betty Anne vows to get him out by earning a law degree. She doesn’t even have a high school diploma, and she is often at the bottom of her class. Her husband leaves her, and eventually so do her sons, who choose to move in with their father because their mother is so focused on her brother. In many respects, when Kenny goes to prison, so do Betty Anne, her family, and Kenny’s daughter.
During her legal studies, Betty Anne comes across a brand new line of evidence: DNA testing. She contacts Barry Scheck, founder of the Innocence Project, and the search is on to gain access to evidence that has been locked away for 18 years and possibly destroyed. As the movie tells it, far from serving the cause of justice, police officers and prosecutors involved in the case do everything they can to stonewall the new investigation and prevent the truth from coming out. Barry Scheck (Peter Gallagher) drily explains, “People don’t like to admit when they’ve made a mistake.”
One must recognize that this film is a dramatization, not an analytical report; one must allow for dramatic license in its telling of this particular story and its representation of the characters. Betty Anne Waters has said about the film, “The movie is so true to life. Not every scene happened, but every emotion happened.” But the family of Katharina Brow, the woman Kenny Waters was accused of killing, have hired Gloria Allred to represent them in a suit for not presenting Brow in a better light.
The film emphasizes a number of problems that actually exist in the criminal justice system, especially as it is applied to poor people. Too often, police and prosecutors justify a swift arrest and conviction with the “unshakable belief” that “if he isn’t guilty of this, he’s guilty of something.” In the film, Kenny can’t afford the $25,000 to hire a private attorney, so he uses a public defender, whose case load is too heavy to give any real attention to his clients. The prosecutor takes one look at Kenny’s juvenile record and believes it is in the public’s best interest to get him behind bars. This is not untypical of the system. In addition, like many small-time criminals accused of violent crimes, the Kenny whom we see in the film is at the mercy of police officers and prosecuting attorneys who have the power to coerce testimonies from petty thugs and frightened acquaintances willing to lie to protect their own freedom. Juliette Lewis gives an astounding performance as the pathetic, broken-toothed former girlfriend who testifies against Kenny after investigators threaten her with losing custody of her child.
A person who has been wrongly accused and convicted faces a double dilemma: the agony of knowing he did not commit the crime, and the knowledge that he will probably never earn parole. A person who is truly guilty can serve the minimum time, go before the parole board, express contrition and regret for the crime, and get out. A person who is not guilty must either lie and pretend to be sorry for the crime, or maintain his innocence and never get out, because parole boards never grant parole to convicts who do not acknowledge their remorse. It’s a catch-22. If the inmate does decide to lie, that confession can be used against him if he ever earns the chance for a retrial. Consequently, convicts who have been wrongly accused of murder almost never get out.
The emergence of groups such as the Innocence Project, however, is changing the system. Kenny Waters was convicted because he had the same type of blood as the perpetrator, Type O. But O is the most common of blood types. It was easy to convict defendants on the strength of matching blood types, but DNA evidence is much more precise and individualized. Since DNA testing became admissible as evidence, 254 prisoners have been exonerated and released from prison. I personally know three people who spent two decades of their lives or more in prison for crimes they did not commit. If it weren’t for the Innocence Project, they would still be behind bars.
But in many ways, they are still imprisoned. They have each lost 20 years of technology, job training, and social experience. Their children have grown up without them. Many such people have earned large financial settlements from the state, but no one can give back the time they lost. People like Betty Anne Waters and Barry Scheck are true heroes who understand the meaning of the word “conviction.”
Jo Ann Skousen teaches English literature at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, New York, and has served as the entertainment editor of Liberty Magazine since 2005. She is the founder and producer of Anthem Film Festival, which will premiere at Freedom Fest in Las Vegas next summer.