Bristol’s crusading lawyer goes Hollywood

By ELIZABETH RAU  |  July 14, 2010

FREEDOM Kenneth and Betty Anne in 2001.

If you haven’t heard of Betty Anne Waters, the Bristol pub owner and single mother of two who put herself through college and law school in a nearly three-decade crusade to overturn her brother’s murder conviction, you will soon.

Betty Anne’s story of love and persistence has been made into a Hollywood movie, which is scheduled to hit theaters on October 15. Judging from the A-list cast and a movie trailer making its way around the Internet, the film could make Betty Anne a household name.

The movie — originally titled Betty Anne Waters but recently renamed Conviction — is packed with good actors, including two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank, who portrays Betty Anne with the characteristic grit she’s shown in other roles.

“We’ll get you out!” Swank shouts in the movie trailer to Sam Rockwell, who plays Kenneth Waters, the brother. “You hear me!”

The film, shot in Ann Arbor and Detroit and directed by Tony Goldwyn, stars Minnie Driver as the best friend who helps Waters pore over suspicious evidence gathered by a small-town police officer, played by Melissa Leo, who turned heads with her powerful performance as a distressed wife in 21 Grams. The cast also includes Peter Gallagher and Juliette Lewis, with an impressive Boston accent.

Some say the movie could turn Betty Anne into the new Erin Brockovich, the unemployed single mom who helped win a $333 million settlement against a California power company accused of polluting a town’s water supply.

Julia Roberts won an Oscar in 2001 for her performance as Brockovich, who became a celebrity in her own right, hosting TV shows, writing a best seller, and giving speeches throughout the world. Betty Anne made the round of morning talk shows after her brother’s release and could be bracing for another media blitz. Her name yields 185,000 hits on Google, and it appears that she is already represented by an agent in Los Angeles.

The Waters’ story was tailor-made for Hollywood, where feel-good tales with happy endings pay off at the box office.

The saga began on May 21, 1980, when police in Ayer, Massachusetts, a working-class community 35 miles northwest of Boston, found 48-year-old Katharina Brow dead in her trailer home. She had been stabbed more than 30 times and robbed of cash and jewelry.

At the time, Kenneth, who’d had a few brushes with the law, was working as a cook at a local diner frequented by Brow. Investigators questioned him, but he wasn’t charged with the crime until two years later after a man living with Kenneth’s ex-girlfriend told police that he had confessed to the murder. At the trial, the ex-girlfriend testified that Kenneth had admitted to the crime.

But Kenneth offered an alibi for his whereabouts the night of the killing. He said he’d been working a double shift at the diner and then rushed to Ayer District Court in the morning to answer an assault charge stemming for an unrelated incident. The jury was unconvinced. Kenneth was convicted in 1983 and sentenced to life in prison.

After family members spent what little money they had on an appeal that went nowhere, Betty Anne, convinced of her brother’s innocence, decided to take on the case herself. One problem: she only had her high school equivalency diploma.

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