In film, the demands of art and of history are often in conflict. The aptly-titled Conviction
, opening this Friday in theaters, is the rare feature film that satisfies both demands.
Directed by Tony Goldwyn, Conviction tells the story of Kenneth Waters, an innocent Massachusetts man who was handed a life sentence for murder in 1983. Staying true to the breathtaking real-life events, the film succeeds in taking on life's extremes — the unfathomable hatred behind a crooked cop's frame-job, and the inestimable resolve of Betty Anne Waters (played by Hilary Swank), who put herself through college and law school to help win her brother's freedom.
Backing Betty Anne was the New England Innocence Project, working with its national counterpart in New York. After serving 18 years for a crime he did not commit — based on evidence engineered by a vindictive policewoman and the false testimony of coerced witnesses — Waters, in 2001, became one of the 259 exonerees to date freed by DNA evidence with the Innocence Project's support.
Waters, for all his hardship, had a few strokes of luck. By the time he was tried, the death penalty had been abolished in Massachusetts. When his sister entered the bar, DNA evidence, unheard of when Waters was tried in the early 1980s, began to come into its own. And a court clerk was conscientious enough to dig through old storage areas to find a long-forgotten sample of the perpetrator's DNA, which showed that Waters could not have committed the crime. The rest is history.
But the film highlights some serious flaws in the Massachusetts criminal-justice system. The defendant was, after all, framed by a cop, and only by happenstance and a court clerk's kindness was the DNA sample located. (Massachusetts is one of only two states — the other being Oklahoma — that does not guarantee post-conviction preservation of biological evidence and DNA testing.) In the film version of events, even after the writing is on the wall that the DNA sample utterly exonerates Waters, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley (whom Betty Anne refers to, in the film, as an "evil bitch") refuses to release Waters; she finally caves when Innocence Project co-founder Barry Scheck phones her with a personal plea coupled with a not-too-subtle announcement that the New York Times and the Boston Globe were very interested in the case.
As the movie tells it, the threat of media exposure apparently pushes Coakley to do the right thing. Here's hoping the Oscar-worthy Conviction will spur much-needed reforms, starting with enactment of the right to access to post-conviction DNA testing.
Harvey Silverglate reads from his latest book, Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent, on Thursday, October 14, at 7 pm, at Porter Square Books, 25 White Street, Cambridge. For more information, call 617.491.2220 or visit portersquarebooks.com.