“The plot of a new film out next year appears, at first glance, to belong in the long tradition of Hollywood prison movie tear-jerkers. A young man – charismatic but volatile, a local troublemaker – is charged with the brutal murder of his female neighbour. To his family’s disbelief, he is convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole. Protestations of innocence fall on deaf ears, all appeals fail, and he is condemned to live out his life in jail. In desperation, his sister – a pub waitress and high-school dropout – puts herself through law school, hoping to fight for his innocence herself. Against all odds, she unearths DNA evidence to clear his name and, after 18 years behind bars, her brother finally walks free.
Production year: 2010
Cert (UK): 15
Runtime: 107 mins
Directors: Tony Goldwyn
Cast: Hilary Swank, Juliette Lewis, Melissa Leo, Minnie Driver, Peter Gallagher, Sam Rockwell
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Like The Shawshank Redemption or Green Mile, Conviction seeks to summon humanity from the despair of the US prison system. The difference, however, is that this story is completely true. Betty Anne Waters really is a part-time pub waitress, who really did put herself through law school and single-handedly proved her brother’s innocence, along the way sacrificing her marriage and even, at one point, life with her two young sons. A decade on from her brother Kenny’s release, Conviction brings her story to the big screen – a sort of Erin Brockovich of the courtroom – leaving out only a final twist so cruel that it was feared cinema audiences would be unable to bear it.
I meet Waters, 55, when she is flown in to London to publicise the film. Her faintly wary expression gives the unusual impression of someone simultaneously overwhelmed and unimpressed, and she has a hesitant, deadpan conversational style. Her appearance may be more groomed than one suspects it used to be, but there is nothing polished about the way she tells her story – haltingly, without rhetorical flourishes or dramatic pauses. “”You keep thinking your life can’t get any crazier,”” she says. “”And then here we go.””
Waters was born in 1955, one of nine children in the kind of family that, had they lived in America’s deep south, would probably have been described as white trash. Instead, the children grew up in rural Massachusetts, in a small town called Ayer, where they were well known as “”one of those families”” – wild and ungovernable, the type to pinch apples from your trees, or maybe worse. Their fathers were varied and absent, while their mother was chaotic and neglectful, and Waters and her brother Kenny, older by one year, saw plenty of the police growing up. Sometimes they used to break into neighbours’ houses and steal sweets: “”We were little wild Indians, you could say.”” She smiles.
By the late 70s the family had moved to Rhode Island, where Waters dropped out of high school a year early and began working part-time in a restaurant with Kenny. But Kenny moved back to Ayer, to look after their grandfather, and while he was there, a neighbour was robbed and stabbed to death. The police called him in for questioning straight away, because of his criminal record – but he had an alibi: he had worked all night in a local diner, and gone straight to court in the morning, to face charges of assaulting a police officer. “”For the first time ever I’m thinking, ‘I’m happy Kenny was in court,’ “” Waters says. “”What a perfect alibi. So Kenny was never a suspect.””
Two and a half years later, out of the blue, the police arrested Kenny and charged him with the murder. The family considered hiring a private defence lawyer, but the down payment alone would have cost $50,000. “”Kenny said, ‘Please, don’t do that, because it would just be a waste – all the evidence shows I’m innocent,’ “” and so they didn’t. Wasn’t Waters very worried? “”No, we thought it was just ridiculous. We thought Kenny was coming home with us. But then, of course, the trial began. And it was a different story.””
At the time of Kenny’s arrest, Waters had checked with the diner in Ayer to make sure they still had the timecards that would prove his alibi. “”I was worried, because it had been more than two years. But the girl in the office said, ‘Yes, I just looked them out for the police, and they’re on their way over now to pick them up.’ “” Yet when the trial opened, the court was told that no timecards for that week had ever been found. Waters began to panic.
“”But by then it was too late. I knew that the police had had the timecards, but I couldn’t take the stand and tell the jury, because I’d already been in the courthouse hearing evidence – and if you’ve heard evidence you can’t then be a witness. It was crazy.””
Things got much worse. An ex-girlfriend called Brenda Marsh, who had been living with Kenny at the time of the murder, testified that he’d come home drunk on the morning of the murder, covered in scratches. She said he’d not been to the diner to work, and nor did he go to the courthouse. According to Marsh – the mother of Kenny’s only child – when the couple later broke up they had a drunken fight during which Kenny had confessed to the murder. Another ex-girlfriend, Roseanna Perry, then testified that he’d subsequently made a drunken confession to her as well. The jury found Kenny guilty, and in May 1983, at the age of 29, he was sentenced to life without parole.
Even then, Waters didn’t lose hope. “”Right after the conviction, Roseanna started calling my mother at two o’clock in the morning, drunk, saying, ‘I’m so sorry.’ And she wanted to recant.”” Waters found a lawyer, and Perry signed a 35-page affidavit admitting she had lied. Leave to appeal was granted, and once again Waters thought her brother would soon be coming home. “”And then Roseanna flip-flopped again. She said she’d only signed the affidavit because the Waters made her sign it. She was afraid if she recanted she’d go to jail for perjury.”” The appeal failed.
“”And that’s when I got really nervous. Right up until that point, I really thought the system would work. I always thought only guilty people go to jail. Absolutely. That’s why I was so shocked.”””