Betty Anne Waters’ older brother Kenny was convicted of murdering a neighbor and sentenced to life without parole.
But Waters was convinced that her brother was innocent.
She worked for 18 years to clear his name, a struggle that led her to get her college degree and then a law degree. And now her story is being told by two-time Academy Award-winner Hilary Swank.
Swank stars in the new film, “Conviction.” NPR’s Michel Martin recently spoke with Waters and Swank about the film and the importance of bringing such stories to the big screen.
Swank on fears of being typecast into roles that portray “real people”:
… This is the reason why I’m an actor. I believe this is why I am on earth, is to help get stories told like Betty Anne Waters and Kenny’s story. This is the kind of original, compelling stories that you don’t find so much in fiction. So when I’m, you know, old and grey, if people say you know, wow, you got stereotyped playing those types of roles, I will have a smile from ear to ear.
Waters on being assured of her brother’s innocence of murder charges early in the case:
Kenny could be very sweet at any given time, and other times he can’t control his anger. So if he was confronted by something he wouldn’t know how to handle a situation and he would overreact and get angry. But he’s not an aggressor, so he would not be the type to break into someone’s home and murder them.
On how she decided to lead the fight for his freedom:
My brother, after he lost his appeals, which took a few years, after his conviction, he called me on the phone after I hadn’t heard from him in about a month, and that was because he was in segregation for a month, because he tried to commit suicide. And I was angry at him for trying to do that, but at the same time, in the same conversation, he said Betty Anne, I can’t live here for the rest of my life for something I didn’t do. I’m not going to make it. And in that same conversation he said, but if you go back to school, go to law school and become my lawyer, I can do it. And I said, I have a problem, though and he says what? I said have a GED.
Swank on why it took nine years to make Conviction:
I think right now people want to see feel-good stories. It’s just the nature of the business. You know, the only thing that I can compare it to is Million Dollar Baby, because we almost didn’t get that made. And that’s a movie that made over $300 million. So it’s just the stigma with studios about dramas. I hear audiences all the time saying I want to see drama, I just want to make sure it’s good drama. And, you know, this is a movie I am very, very proud of…
Swank on the larger issue of wrongful incarceration:
I think [the film] will absolutely shine a bright light on a big flaw in our justice system. … As a human species, we’re quick to judge. And when someone is found guilty we instantly think, oh, yeah, they must have done it, because the powers that be and the courts that know what they’re doing said they were [guilty]. And, you know, as we sit here right now, there are innocent people in prison. And I absolutely think that any time you can have a movie … like Betty Anne sharing her story, and any time you can talk about it, it just sheds more light on something that needs to be looked at closer.
Waters on what she hopes Conviction will accomplish:
First of all, I hope it draws attention to other people… Like myself, I always thought people that were in prison were guilty, until this happened to me. … And now I know that I’m not alone. There are a lot of people in prison that are innocent. … I keep thinking that one day, I’m going to hear that somebody saw this movie and they either did something — or didn’t do something — and another person was freed because of it. And I can’t wait to hear that.
Waters on her brother Kenny’s sudden death, just months after being exonerated and freed:
He had an accidental fall and it was unbelievable, again. My brother had very bad luck. … And it was awful, but the one good thing about that was, as I had to tell Hilary during the filming (she was filming [to portray] the day that he was released, and she came over to me actually in tears, crying, saying how could that happen?), there’s always the good side to a bad side. I can’t find the good side. … The good side is my brother died free. And he died with his family and friends and he died an innocent man, people knew he was innocent, and that is the upside of that.