Film tells of true-life wrongful conviction drama

Waters and Goldwyn
Betty Anne Waters was the inspiration for the new movie "Conviction." She's shown here with the film's director, Tony Goldwyn.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

Betty Anne Waters once believed everyone in prison was guilty. Then, a Massachusetts court sentenced her brother Kenny to life imprisonment for a brutal murder he claimed he hadn't committed.

This set Waters on a remarkable path which is the subject of a new movie, "Conviction," which opens this weekend in the Twin Cities.

Betty Anne Waters managed a bar when her brother Kenny was convicted of murder in 1983. The killing of an elderly woman living alone in a remote Massachusetts township enraged the community. Well known to police, Kenny had a mouth, a quick temper, and was the natural suspect to many locals.

Yet Waters firmly believed her brother when he said he was innocent. He later lost an appeal, and attempted suicide. Soon after, Kenny told his sister the only way he'd survive in prison was if she went to school to become a lawyer, and got him out.

Betty Anne had only earned a GED, not a high school diploma. and she warned her brother that it could take a long time for her to become a lawyer.

"And he said, 'I don't care how long it takes. If you promise me that you will go back to school and do that, I promise you I will stay alive,'" Waters recalled during a recent visit to the Twin Cities.

She agreed to her brother's request -- earning her high school diploma, a college degree and a law degree.

Swank as Waters
Hilary Swank plays Betty Anne Waters, the Massachusetts woman with a GED who put herself through college and law school so she could represent her brother who was wrongly convicted of murder.
Image courtesy Fox Searchlight

It took 18 years of constant struggle, but with the help of renowned lawyer Barry Scheck and the New York-based Innocence Project, Betty Ann Waters got her brother released in 2001.

Waters responded this way when asked whether she's wasted her life.

"That has been my life," she said. "That was my life, and I wouldn't have it any other way."

Waters is traveling the country to publicize the film, along with its director Tony Goldwyn.

"What moved me about this story was the love relationship between the brother and the sister," Goldwyn said. "The fact that it was housed in this extraordinary story and this extraordinary achievement of Betty Anne's was all the better."

Hilary Swank and Sam Rockwell star as the real-life siblings Betty Anne and Kenny Waters in "Conviction."
Image courtesy Fox Searchlight

Goldwyn insisted the movie had to work first and foremost as a drama. He had to tell Waters some more hard truths about how he was going to portray Kenny, and the questions over whether he committed the murder.

"I was pretty clear with her ... I want to sow seeds of doubt," Goldwyn said. "Because I thought it was more interesting dramatically, but it also was true that that's what people thought."

With double Oscar-winner Hilary Swank playing Betty Anne and Sam Rockwell as Kenny, the film has drawn good reviews from such big name critics as Roger Ebert, Rex Reed and Michael Phillips.

"Conviction" is important for other reasons to Erika Applebaum, executive director of the Innocence Project of Minnesota. She said the film will raise the profile of the organization's work in this state.

"There's not a lot of Betty Anne Waters around the world," she said. "And that's where we step in and we become Betty Anne, and help people here in Minnesota who were wrongfully convicted."

Applebaum said the Minnesota legal system is a lot better than most states, but people still make mistakes. Her office is midway through a review of 14,000 Minnesota rape and murder cases.

"So we are looking for those needles in a haystack," she said.

So far, she said, her group has identified about 250 for further investigation.

One of the project's recent high-profile cases was that of Koua Fong Lee. Citing problems with his defense, and questions over the safety of the Toyota Camry he was driving, a Ramsey County judge recently threw out Lee's 2007 conviction and eight-year prison sentence for causing a car crash that left three people dead.

"Anyone can relate to Koua Fong Lee and what happened in his particular case," Applebaum said. "You can realize that this can happen to anyone, including yourself."

Both Applebaum and Betty Anne Waters say they do have tremendous respect for the legal system, but there's always a need for additional watchdogs keeping an eye on things.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.