Betty Anne Waters' <i>Conviction</i> Kept Her Going

Murder is a messy, bloody business -- and so is the matter of holding someone accountable for a crime they did not commit.
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The woman portrayed by Hilary Swank in the upcoming Hollywood movie talks with Anne Driscoll about her remarkable story of courage, faith and yes, conviction. Her brother believed in her and, in return, she achieved a miracle.

Like a lot of people, Betty Anne Waters grew up believing that if you were in jail, you deserved to be there. That all changed in 1983 when her brother, Kenny Waters, was found guilty of the murder of an Ayer, Massachusetts woman based on the perjured testimony of two ex-girlfriends and the trumped-up evidence put forth by a corrupt local police department.

The film Conviction, which opened on Oct. 15, is the true inspirational story of Kenny Waters' wrongful conviction and whose only hope of release from prison rested on the unlikely shoulders of younger sister Betty Anne, with only a GED certificate in her hand.

Although it's not a documentary, Conviction hews closely to the ugly truth that you can be wholly innocent and still get convicted of a vicious crime. In Waters' case, his conviction was overturned based on DNA evidence not available at the time of his conviction, and on proof that key witnesses had lied before the jury.

Murder is a messy, bloody business -- and so is the matter of holding someone accountable for a crime they did not commit. In essence, this is what makes the Tony Goldwyn directed film a must-see. Stunning performances by Sam Rockwell as Kenny Waters, Hilary Swank as Betty Anne and Minnie Driver as her best friend and legal ally, have not only garnered Oscar buzz, but have also churned up a whole lot of interest in the issue of wrongful convictions, as it shines a glaring spotlight on a topic still misunderstood by many.

According to the National Institute of Justice, it is believed that 10 percent of America's two million prisoners may have been wrongfully convicted. To date, there have been 259 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the US, including 17 people who served time on death row. Since the Innocence Project was founded in 1992, they and others, such as the Justice Brandeis Innocence Project at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University, have taken up the cause, investigated cases and furthered awareness of the issue.

"It's important to see this movie because I am just a regular person who, like most people, thought that the people who go to prison are guilty," says Betty Anne Waters. "I just want people to open their eyes."

A mother of two boys with a limited education, Betty Anne was an improbable champion for her brother. The two grew up together in a large but unstable family with few resources. Convinced of his innocence, it wasn't until her brother's despair triggered a suicide attempt that she had any idea how to help free him.

Betty Anne recalls the conversation that changed the course of both their lives:

I usually spoke with my brother (in jail) twice a week and he didn't call me for 30 days. Come to find out, my brother was in segregation for 30 days because he had tried to commit suicide. I was so mad at him. I said, 'Why did you do that?' He said, 'I cannot live in prison for the rest of my life for something I didn't do but, if you go to law school, I know you will get me out of here.' I said, 'Kenny, you're kidding. You know I have a GED and a GED and law school are a long way apart.' He said, 'If you promise me, I know you will do it.' I said, 'I'll do that if you promise me you'll never kill yourself again. I enrolled in the Community College of Rhode Island. I didn't know if I was going to make it to law school. I didn't know if I could make it through community college. I only knew that if I kept going, he wouldn't kill himself. My brother kept me going.

Waters didn't do it alone. Eventually she got the attention of Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project, which is dedicated to investigating cases of wrongful convictions and freeing innocent people using DNA technology.

"Listen, I can't tell you enough good things about Barry Scheck. He is my real life hero. I did what I did because he was my brother. Barry didn't know my brother -- he helped him because he knew he was innocent and who does that?" says Waters, who continues to work on behalf of the Innocence Project.

Finally, in March, 2001, Kenny, accompanied by Betty Anne, was exonerated and released. He was happily reunited with his family and enjoying his freedom and lost time when tragically, he died six months later in an accidental fall.

"I thought I was all alone. When I would tell people my brother is in prison for murder but he's innocent, I'd get this look (like they didn't believe me). I stopped talking about it because of that look," says Waters, who found legal expertise, but also camaraderie, through the Innocence Project. "I will always be involved with the Innocence Project because I love them. I've met 200 of the 259 (exonerees), I go to the conferences and I feel like my brother is with me. I feel the spirit in the room. People are so humble. I cannot ever not be part of that."

So is Conviction entertainment, a cautionary tale, impetus for change, or all of the above? "All of the above," says Waters.

There is some entertainment but it's real. Juliette Lewis -- I just love her and the character she played because it's people like her that can put anyone in prison and they do it. And jailhouse snitches -- I don't get that. You're going to rely on something a jailhouse snitch says? It's crazy. The system needs to be changed

What does Waters think her brother would make of the film and the Hollywood hoopla that it has generated?

"Oh my God, my brother would be king of the mountain. He'd be so happy right now. He'd be sitting here smiling like you can't believe. He only had six months (out of prison) and he had six months of a tremendous life because people really loved him," says Waters.

This article is also published at courtesy FoxSearchlight Pictures.