Interview: Betty-Anne Waters, the story behind CONVICTION

CONVICTION is a film which imitates life, but the reality behind it is more compelling than any screenplay. Betty-Anne Waters saw her brother Kenny unlawfully sent to prison for the murder and robbery of a childhood neighbour-two years after the crime had occurred. Despite a water-tight alibi and a lack of evidence against him, Kenny had fell through the cracks of the system. Out of unbridled love for her brother, Betty-Anne enrolled in community college, law school and studied relentlessly to pass the bar with one goal in mind: free Kenny from prison. It was 18 years of Betty-Anne’s life devoted to securing her brother’s freedom.

Ode to Betty’s persistence, DNA which had gone untested for over a decade was finally recognised in court. Through sheer tenacity, Betty-Anne proved her brothers innocence.  CONVICTION brings the story to cinematic life with Hilary Swank cast as Betty-Anne and Sam Rockwell in the role of Kenny. THN spoke to Betty-Anne about the experience of having her incredible story retold through the eyes of director Tony Goldwyn.

THN: Betty, having seen your story on screen, do you think the film was portrayed quite close to your reality?

Yes, well I mean it is but then again there are sequences that aren’t correct things that maybe didn’t happen the way they had it, maybe because they were trying to help certain feelings come out, but the feelings there were all portrayed correctly. It’s not that its inaccurate, but maybe out of sequence like for example it took two years from  my brothers DNA to be tested. We were trying to go back and forth to the DAs office saying we found this evidence in 1999 and we want to have it tested, it took until 2001 to have it tested. In the movie he is in prison until two years after it was tested but in real life it took us those two years. Then he was released and during the first three months of his release, thats when we decided to investigate it because he wasn’t exonerated yet the sentence was vacated which meant they could re-try him. But for three months we were reinvestigating and then once we got the witnesses to recant and all of that, they exonerated him in June of that year.

THN: What caused that lengthly delay for the DNA to be tested?

Well, sometimes these delays happen and in Massachusetts they did not have a statute saying it could be tested. It was up to the defense and the DAs office to argue about whether it should be tested or not and to approve it before going into court. You could always go into court but then if you take that risk and the judge says no, and the DAs against you then you’ve lost the battle because they already said no, so you need that approval before going in.

THN: How did you know for sure that you’re brother Kenny was innocent?

Well because this happened to my neighbour and two and a half years before (the arrest) my mother and I drove the 3 and half hours up to Ayer to see what happened to our neighbour. That day we found out they had questioned Kenny and asked him to come to the police station. That wasn’t because he was a suspect really, but because he had a police record so it was regular protocol. They were also looking for someone that was obviously cut, because there was a lot of blood from the perpetrator at the scene. I knew that they checked Kenny for cuts, he didn’t have any, they checked his alibi-he had worked at a diner the night before. And he was in court that morning for none other than assaulting a local police officer. Now, that police officer saw him in court so his alibi, you couldn’t get any better than that. So I knew he was innocent from the evidence two and a half years before.

THN: So what went wrong?

This girl Brenda (played by Juliet Lewis in Conviction) had said that he told her he did it-that he came home with a scratch on his face and all that. Well the day of the murder I was with her and she was very upset that they were even talking to Kenny, because she knew that he was innocent. And she knew that he was in court and all of those things. Then, in the two and half years later listening to all the evidence that was the same and the evidence that was missing, like the time cards to prove his alibi. I personally had gone up to Ayer right after he was arrested to make sure that they still had that. I knew that the police were on their way to pick them up and that his time cards said that he had worked when he said he worked. But those time cards never made it into court. So things like that happened where I just knew he was innocent. From the evidence, and of course from knowing Kenny.

THN: Why do you think Kenny was scapegoated by the police in this way?

I think what happened, well, Nancy Taylor was the police officer that really orchestrated this. My brother is not the only person that she has sent to prison wrongfully. I think it was because it was the 1980s and it was more of a mans world in the police department and I think she wanted to prove herself, that she could solve a murder. I think it was nothing more than that.

THN: Really?

Yes. I mean, she didn’t know Kenny, she didn’t have it in for Kenny she just wanted to solve a murder. She was a police officer but actually, she had not even gone to the academy until after Kenny’s conviction.

THN: How did it feel to have your life depicted on screen this way?

It’s pretty strange, sometimes I watch it and I just forget its me up there being depicted. Its kind of odd. Just really odd.

THN: In the film it shows that this 18 year process took a real toll on your family life, was this really the case?

Yes, it was , we’re a very close family, everybody loved him but there was really nothing anyone could do. We had problems at the beginning we didn’t have any money, we had to pay all these attorneys. But each time it didn’t matter because it seemed like the attorneys just talked over our heads. It was sort of like going to a doctor and they don’t explain anything to you because you can’t understand it. Where, now knowing what I know, the things they told us then were ridiculous. He wasn’t getting out with appeals. We spent that money for nothing.

THN: I’m sure there are many family members that go to prison wrongfully but they don’t get the determination to do what you did. Where did that motivation come from?

Kenny. Kenny had so much faith in me, much more than I ever had in myself and that didn’t just start when he went to prison. As children, he’s only 1 year older than me and we were very close and i can remember me being in first grade, him being in second and his teacher bringing him to my room saying ‘behave like your sister!’ You know, we were very close. He just felt I could do anything. I don’t know where that came from but he always did.

THN: Well, it looks like he was right. Had this never happened, do you think you would have still gone on to get your GED and apply to law school?

You know thats the funny part, I did have a GED already. Why Tony Goldwyn decided to do this for the movie I don’t know but I did have that GED to begin with. I had taken a couple of classes and then just stopped and got married and just didn’t have interest in anything at that point. Um, to go to school or do anything. When I was younger, I probably wanted to be a lawyer, maybe when I was 15 but then I dropped out of school so that was kind of out of the ball park for me (laughs).

THN: Are you still practicing law?

I do and I didn’t want to practice initially because of what happened to my brother it kind of tuned me off from the system. I always thought only guilty people go to prison not innocent so I thought, ‘I don’t want to be a lawyer, I don’t want to be a part of that system.’ But I have met so many great people through The Innocence Project and I love helping them. I do pro-bono work. I work in an Irish pub and do pro-bono work for The innocence Project so I have the best of both worlds. I work with policy changes and reforms-I work against the death penalty and try to get people to look at cases. I believe there have been about 270 cases now of people who have been released with DNA evidence. I hope this movie opens people eyes and that these people don’t fall through the cracks.

THN: I hope it improves

I hope so too, you know I live for that day that someone calls me and says you because of you I did something, or maybe didn’t do something and now another person is free.

THN:What was it like for you entering this world of affluence college kids?

Well, it wasn’t easy! I felt a lot older but I thought, you know what’s worse?I have a brother in prison. It’s a lot worse being in prison than going to school with a bunch of kids.

THN: Was it a difficult process for you?

Yeah, it was because every step-I mean, I took it one step at a time I didn’t want to go to fast, otherwise I would have been scared to death. So I just did one hurdle at a time. Even just getting through the community college which was a two year degree was big for me. Getting through that, then getting into a four year college, passing the law-school exams, trying to get into a law school. Everything was a hurdle-I just didn’t look beyond the one thing I had to do.

THN: So having seen you’re story recanted back to you on screen, does it feel more of a victory now than it felt at the time?

Yes and no, it’s kind of bitter sweet because Kenny’s not here. You know I wish he was here. But I tell people that you know, my dream did come true because I had dreams and nightmares for 18 years and my nightmare was that Kenny would die in prison with nobody ever knowing that he was innocent. I just had this vision of people passing him through the prison in a pine box and giving him back to us. My dream was that he would be freed. In my dream there would be big iron gates and they would open up, and there would be a limo waiting for him, everyone would know he was innocent and champagne would be flowing and then, he’d come home to us. So my dream did come true. I feel good about that and the movie shows that too. It happened so fast, sometimes it hard to realise that it did happen. It’s bittersweet because he’s not here.

Conviction is in cinemas NOW. See the trailer here:

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