Compelling and uncompromising, CONVICTION is the story of siblings Betty Anne and Kenny Waters. From early on they shared an impenetrable bond that ushered them through a challenged childhood filled with impish deeds that led to being separated, thrust into living apart.
Kenny’s rambunctious-ness often went into overdrive fueling a pattern of misdemeanor offenses while making enemies along the way. A failed marriage gave way to a strained relationship with his daughter yet, Kenny and Betty Anne remained as close as their circumstances allowed.
When the consequences of Kenny’s misfortunes fall into the hands of a vindictive parole officer, he is wrongfully convicted of murder, which serves as the basis of this film. Renowned civil rights attorney Barry Scheck of The Innocence Project, who also worked on the O.J. Simpson trial, factors prominently into the telling of this story; Scheck worked alongside Betty Anne (who put herself through law school) to help free Kenny Waters.
I sat with Scheck in a hotel lobby during the Toronto film festival to discuss this movie and the work he is doing through DNA discovery to overturn wrongful convictions.
Sandra Varner (Talk2SV): The work that you do is bittersweet. Using DNA discovery to free innocent prisoners and persons wrongfully accused came into popular vernacular during your work on the O. J. Simpson trial back in 1994. You and law partner Peter Neufeld had started The Innocence Project in 1992 to free such persons. Yet, of the many cases The Innocence Project has processed (some 230), many if not all of the cases are hard fought and encounter innumerable many road blocks on the way to a person’s long awaited freedom.
Scheck: Well, it’s frustrating but we’ve made so much progress and attitudes have changed. But we find that in case after case, yes it’s true, some prosecutors are coming forward and are willing to say, ‘we made a mistake.’ We’ll even set up what we call convictions integrity units as they have in Dallas, in New York, in other prosecutors offices across the country because they want to correct the injustices. At the same time, some people, I think, are foolishly afraid that it’s embarrassing for the system. What people have to recognize is that only 10% of felony cases have any biological evidence that you can subject to DNA testing. What about the other 90% of the cases where there’s mistaken eye witness identification or false confessions or bad forensic science or police officers and prosecutors who cross the line or defense lawyers that are not adequately funded or not competent to do the job? These are all serious problems for the system and when we attack those, it makes it better for everybody.
Oakland-based civil rights attorney John L. Burris is a contemporary of Scheck’s and had this to say about his work —
Talk2SV: What is your comment about the work being done at The Innocence Project?
Burris: Tremendous work, there are many great people, good people doing great work. Some of them in small places and they don’t get a lot of attention for it. They (The Innocence Project) get a lot of attention for it and it’s well deserved. Because before them, no one was focused on this whole question of what do we do about people who’ve been convicted of crimes and we have reason to believe that they’re innocent? Now, fortunately, DNA came along and they were able to use a scientific method to go back and do this work. I mean, there is nothing more painful, just think of a person who has been in jail for 20 years who did not commit the crime and no one listens to them. Because everyone says they’re innocent in jail and you can’t figure out who is telling the truth or not. You can’t do everything and solve all problems; you have to focus in on what you can do. They are focused in on this problem and the world’s a better place because they have; most of the people they’ve freed have been black people. So, it’s a step forward, a giant step forward; unfortunately, it only affects a small number of people, but it’s a very positive development and they certainly are people that I have the utmost respect for.
Go to www.Talk2SV.com to read my interviews with CONVICTION’s star and Bay Area native, Sam Rockwell, renowned Oakland-based attorney John Burris and the full interview with civil rights attorney Barry Scheck of The Innocence Project. Each of them provides insightful commentary on wrongful convictions and eye-opening perspectives.