“I don’t do things in my work to raise awareness. That comes later,” says Hilary Swank. “But I’ve certainly told a lot of these true stories.”
The body had been stabbed more than 30 times. In 1983, Kenny Waters was found guilty of murder and given a life sentence. With the help of the Innocence Project and through DNA testing, Waters was exonerated in 2001 after having served 17 years in prison.
The Innocence Project, founded by Barry C. Scheck in 1992, pursues reforms to the criminal justice system to prevent wrongful convictions and represents prisoners who can be proven innocent through DNA testing.
“There’s 240 people who have been exonerated with DNA testing nationwide with the help of the Innocence Project. When you think about it, there would be 240 people on Death Row right now convicted of heinous crimes they didn’t commit,” says Swank. “It’s a long process to get someone off Death Row. We’re not talking just a short amount of time. And when someone’s convicted of something that they didn’t do, it doesn’t only affect them. It affects their whole family.”
Swank became acquainted with the Innocence Project and its mission about 10 years ago, when she saw the play “The Exonerated.” The actress recalls, “The Innocence Project was a big part of that play. I was so moved.”
Swank was already a strong advocate of the org when offered the lead in “Betty Anne Waters,” a film that tells the story of Waters and his sister, Betty Anne, and her struggle, alongside the Innocence Project, to get Kenny exonerated.
“Unfortunately, I never met Kenny. He died about six months after he was released,” says Swank. “But from what his family has told me, he was as full of grace as the rest of the people I have met who have been exonerated.”
At last, exonerated
Calvin Johnson was sentenced to life imprisonment on charges of sodomy, rape and burglary, and served 16 years. With the help of the Innocence Project, he was exonerated and released in 1999.
When he walked into the courtroom, Johnson recalls, “My adrenaline was flowing. There were news people everywhere because I was the first person to be exonerated in the state of Georgia based on DNA. Finally, the judge said, ‘You’re free to go.’ And I looked back at my dad. I’d never seen my dad cry in his whole life, and there was a tear running down his face. The district attorney never apologized, but he reached over and shook my hand and said something like ‘I wish you the best.’ ”
Johnson is now on the board of directors for the Innocence Project. In September 2003, his book “Exit to Freedom,” the story of his years in a Georgia prison, was published.