Betty Anne Waters is a woman who is just as extraordinary as her story. When her brother Kenny was accused of murder in 1983, despite shaky evidence and testimony, the mother of two decided to fight. In order to exonerate her brother, she set her sights on law school, and beyond. The new film Conviction tells her story, with Hilary Swank bringing her to life. While the film seems true to her story, I had the rare opportunity of hearing the tale from the source - Mrs. Waters herself. In an intimate roundtable interview I discussed with Mrs. Waters the differences between the film and the reality, what it was really like to be in her shoes, and more. Conviction opens in a limited release this Friday. Do you think the movie portrayal is close to the reality?
It’s really pretty close. The only thing that’s different is the chronology of things happen a little differently but all the feelings are there; different things that I went through, my brother went through. Those feelings are all there. It was pretty close.
Has it become any easier to look back at this through this story and do you see it as victory for your story or any type of extra win for your hard effort?
Oh yes, totally because I freed my brother. If I hadn’t I’d still be working on it (laughs). I think it’s very important for the story to be out there because I am a big advocate for the Innocence Project and my hope right now for this movie is that it will help other people in prison that are innocent.
Take us back in time. This is an incredible story of 18 years that you spent involved in this. There had to have been moments where you felt like, “Maybe not. I can’t go on any further or I don’t know if I’m going to make it.” What were the darkest moments and how did you kind of punch through that and look at the end goal?
Well I felt like that all the time. It wasn’t until my brother exhausted his appeals that I became involved to the point where I knew I was going to have to go back to school to help him because after he lost his last appeal he became very suicidal and I was mad at him for being suicidal. At the same time he couldn’t spend the rest of his life in prison for something he didn’t do and he had life without parole so he wasn’t getting out. And it was at that point that he actually said the only way I will survive is if you go back to school and you become my lawyer. And I’m like, “Kenny you know I have a GED, right?”
Did you know what you were in for?
Probably not totally, no. I mean I didn’t look at the whole big picture all at once. I thought, “I have a GED!” (laughs). You know? And I knew that it would be a long, long process and I even told Kenny how many years it would take me to become a lawyer but he said he didn’t care, as long as he knew that I promised to do that, he’d promise to stay alive and everything would be okay. First of all, he said it’s going to happen. If I make that promise that he felt that I would do it.
The film kind of portrays Sam Rockwell’s character as being more skeptical, more “Why are you bothering me?” "Why are you trying to save me?” but you said he was very supportive from the start.
Yeah, he’s the one who said I need you to go to law school and be my lawyer. So that’s why I say the movie is, of course all the feelings are there in our conversation, but he is the one that wanted me to. He had the faith in me that I could do it. I didn’t think I had it in me, even getting into law school.
You never thought or questioned once whether he was or wasn’t guilty—you just knew?
I knew Kenny was innocent for a couple of reasons. For one I know that my brother would never just break into someone’s trailer, kill them for their money or their jewelry. It’s like, you know, he’s done a lot of things but that’s not one of the things Kenny does. He’s not an aggressor. He would never do that and I know that, but not only that but the person that was killed was our neighborhood. So the day this happened I lived an hour and a half away. My mother went right up there because Kenny was living with my grandfather at the time so we went right to the town to see what was going on and what’s happening here? We found out that Kenny was questioned that day because he had a police record. As a matter of fact, his alibi was he was in court that morning for assaulting a local police officer which was later dismissed, but he worked all night at the diner. So we’re thinking, “Of course that’s a perfect alibi,” and they looked for someone that had scratches and they checked him out totally and let him go. We thought, “Okay, they were just harassing him to begin with,” and so I knew also from the evidence that Kenny was innocent from the very first day. It was two and a half years later that they arrested him.
Did you ever begin to truly question yourself because there were so many twists and turns in the process going from a GED to getting into law school and getting through it—that’s such a huge challenge. How did you go about doing that?
I just took one day at a time. You know I looked at each next hurdle as a hurdle, you know? Like getting my undergrad degree and the LSAT’s scared the heck out of me—oh my god! (laughs). I just studied probably harder than anybody and then law school itself was difficult. I was thinking, “Oh my god and I going to make it?” but I think the hardest part of being in law school getting that far at that point was that I was so close to the end and wasn’t finding an answer to how I was going to help my brother. You know, that scared me to death.
That’s what I was going to ask. You know you talk about the educational process and challenges. Going in did you have any sense of the legal challenges that would then await you after?
Absolutely, I always had that going on in my mind. Yeah I’m keeping him alive by staying in school and doing what I’m doing but the more I learned the more I understood how difficult it is to get someone out of prison once they’re convicted, so I was very nervous about that.
Did you have an idea, a notion of how you might go at it?
Yes, I actually had an idea before I found the DNA. It’s kind of a long story but there were fingerprints involved in this case that from the very beginning Nancy Taylor said there were no fingerprints, so that avenue was never pursued. There was no fingerprint expert ever who came to court because we thought there were no usable prints. She said that at the grand jury but after Kenny was convicted, and we had hired an appeals attorney, and through the appeals attorney we got certain reports and on some of these police reports they were eliminating people with fingerprints and I’m like, “Okay, how can you eliminate people if it’s not a usable print? It’s contradictory.” So I knew there were prints but finding the prints was another story because everyone denied there were any prints. That was going to be my avenue—to try and figure out the fingerprint evidence.
One of the things the film really evokes is our fear of law enforcement and what can potentially happen to us when we’re not guilty. I kept thinking though the whole film, “God forbid I’m in a small town in a situation like this where I just happen to be the most logical person so they point at me.” Do you feel that given your vantage point as an attorney, should we trust law enforcement? I feel nervous every time I get pulled over for a speeding ticket.
I do too. I feel exactly the same way you do because I’ve seen too many people now. My brother was the 83rd person exonerated through DNA. There have been to date I believe 258 people which I have met probably 200 of them. And their stories are scary, how they got arrested. And many of them—no police record, nothing, no reason. Just wrong place at the wrong time. You know like you said, it does happen and it shouldn’t happen. It doesn’t just fall through the cracks as you look at the stories you see how each person was convicted and it’s pretty scary. It can change it doesn’t have to happen.
When the DNA evidence technology came into play that really changed the game, what would you say to someone who wants to help someone get out?
There’s so many answers, but the Innocence Project is definitely one of the answers and they need help, too. They need help helping other people but they mostly work with DNA evidence. Now they are going beyond that with non DNA in cases but I would contact an agency like that because if they can’t help that person than they can refer them maybe to someone who can. They now have a big networking going on so they know a lot of people in different states.
Your relationship with Kenny—one of the things we see in the film is this unshakable bond with Kenny at a very young age. So just give us a sense of that. That was obviously in your mind the entire time.
Right. Kenny was one year older than me and we were best friends growing up. We lived on a farm and I was a tomboy (laughs) and I actually had three older brothers, he was one year older and I had two other ones and I was the first girl. He was my best friend so you know everybody else had friends but we were each other’s friends. We come from a family of nine, we’re our own baseball team you know? It’s my brother—it was just there.
Not to be critical of the film, but what’s something between you and your brother and the whole situation that didn’t get into the film? Not because they’re trying to cover anything up, but what’s something people wouldn’t know about your story or you and your brother?
I guess one thing would be because at the time this film was made I was telling about the fingerprints. We had not uncovered the fingerprints yet and Kenny was exonerated through DNA evidence but only just a couple years ago I proved beyond any doubt that Nancy Taylor had finger prints and knew my brother was innocent and did not come forward with that information. So because the movie was made when it was, they didn’t know that but I think Nancy Taylor is too nice in this movie (laughs).
Where is she? What happened to her then?
Nothing, she’s a retired grandmother up in Brighton, Massachusetts or somewhere. Nothing ever happened to her.
Did she ever make any statements about this case after it was overturned?
Yes, all negative statements. She doesn’t believe in DNA first of all. Yeah, my brother had some choice words to say about that.
You went to law school for this one reason. Did you think, “Once I get him out I’m not going to be an attorney?”
Yes, I never planned on opening a practice or becoming an attorney, especially because I don’t fit into the system the right way.
What do you mean?
I don’t want to just open a practice and be an attorney. I love helping the Innocence Project. I think that’s enough involvement for me, it’s become very emotional to be in the system at all. So that’s a no for that (laughs).
How are your sons doing?
They’re fabulous, they’re doing great. They’re happy men now, they’re good.
The movie shows it kind of took a toll on your family life. Any thoughts on that?
No, you know my kids are great. If you ask them, they don’t think they were neglected or pushed aside as much as the movie kind of portrays but they really were in a sense but they don’t think they were. They’re very proud of me and they say that I give them inspiration to do things in their life so it all worked out well.