Betty Anne Waters talks 'Conviction,' the Innocence Project, and the broken justice system

Categories: Film and TV
bettyannewaters.jpg
Photo by Andy Mannix.
Betty Anne Waters was played by Hilary Swank in the 2010 movie Conviction.
When a Massachusetts jury convicted Kenny Waters of murder in 1983, at least one person knew he was innocent.

At the time, Kenny's sister Betty Anne was a server at an Irish bar with two kids and a high school equivalency. But she was so determined to prove her brother's innocence, she put herself through law school.

After 18 years in prison, Betty Anne cleared her brother with DNA evidence and help from the Innocence Project. Tragically, in September 6, 2001 -- only six months after his release from prison -- Kenny died of a fractured skull when he accidentally fell from a 15-foot wall.

But that didn't stop Betty Anne from fighting for her brother. In 2009, she helped win a $3.4 million settlement from several insurance companies and the town of Ayer, where Kenny was wrongfully convicted. In 2010, Fox Searchlight released a movie about her story, called Conviction. Hilary Swank portrayed Betty Anne and Sam Rockwell played Kenny.

On Thursday night, Betty Anne was in Minneapolis to headline a fundraiser for the Minnesota Innocence Project at the Graves Hotel. We caught up with her before the event.

What did you think of the movie?

I loved the movie. I thought it was a great movie. I think it would have been a great tribute to my brother, and my brother would have loved the movie more than me.

Were you involved much in the actual production?

Well, I guess I wasn't involved that much, but I was there. Like, I don't have a lot of say in it. Although I trust the people -- the producers and the director, Tony Goldwyn -- to do what he told me he would do: make an honest movie out of this. Show the real story. And he did.

Tony and Sam Rockwell and Hilary all came to my house and visited me, talked with me, we spent the day together and night. We went to my hometown to see where all the events took place, to see where we were brought up as children. They really tried to capture our childhood and our life. Sam was really funny. He came to my house...he was with one of my other brothers and he's walking around my house and I'm like, 'Um can I help you?' And he says, 'I'm just trying to get a feel for Kenny.' And I still had Kenny's weights at my house, so Sam's in there lifting Kenny's weights.

kennywaters.jpg
Innocence Project.
Kenny Waters died tragically just six months after his release in 2001.

In terms of the actual events of the movie, do you think it was an honest retelling?

I think it was. I can think of a few things that weren't exactly right, and the sequence wasn't exactly right, because it's not a documentary. So they took things out of sequence, but I can see why.

For instance, my brother was arrested at my grandfather's funeral. And he really was arrested at my grandfather's funeral, but it wasn't for the murder, it was for something else. But I get why he put that in there. You don't want him arrested twice.

Was there anything that wasn't in the movie that you thought should have been?

Well there are things that happened later that couldn't be put in the movie because the movie was already made.

The settlement, for example?

Yes. The reason why I had a civil suit was because the miracle of DNA was what exonerated my brother. But it didn't prove what Nancy Taylor [the officer who was allegedly behind Kenny's wrongful conviction] did. It didn't prove that someone did something on purpose to put my brother in prison. It was not an accident. And it just seemed that him winning his freedom wasn't enough, especially since he passed away. Nancy Taylor was still saying that he was guilty, and I knew there was evidence out there of those fingerprints that never came to light, because they never found them. And I said, 'I have to. I just wont sleep unless I try at least.' So that is why we went for the civil suit, and we did find the fingerprints. After 28 years. We found not just fingerprints that existed, but bloody fingerprints. And it was definitely the fingerprints of the perpetrator, and Kenny's name on two lists that eliminated from those prints. In Nancy Taylor's handwriting, by the way.

The civil suit proved not just that he was innocent, but that she put him in prison on purpose. And that was important to me, and I know that would be important to Kenny.

Have you had many conversations with [Taylor]?

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Screen shot from Conviction movie trailer.
Hilary Swank portrayed Betty Anne Waters in the movie of her story.

No. I went to the depositions, I went to all the depositions, and I actually sat at a table with her in a very small room, and I was so uncomfortable. And I kept thinking, 'If Kenny was here, what would he do?' And I remember there was a break, and it was just myself, her, the stenographer...And she said something about these, what do you call them, Waco Wafers? And she had them in her hand, and I think she offered me one. She said, 'Would you like one,' or something like that. And I thought she said, 'You don't remember me?' And I remember being like, 'I don't remember you?!' All like venom, you know. And she's like, 'No...' She just got really nervous for a second and then I'm like, 'Oh. No. I don't want one.' [Laughs]. And she kept smiling at me like I'm going smile back, and she's probably the last person on earth that I wold want to smile at.

In terms of the movie, I understand that they cut the fact that your brother died soon after he was exonerated. How did you feel about that?

I was so happy about it. I did not want that in the movie. I didn't want this movie, Kenny did. I'm the behind-the-scenes kind of person, he's out there. He loves the attention. For the six months he was alive, he loved the attention. He wanted this movie, he thought he was going to star in it, and he was going to pick whoever was going to play who. He was ready for this movie. It was supposed to be about him winning his freedom, and that's what it's about. And I have to tell people now what happened to Kenny, which is very hard for me at times. It's been 10 years now, and it's still hard to say the words sometimes, but I'm really happy that is not in the movie.

Is it still an honest movie without having that in?

Well yeah, because that has nothing to do with it. Kenny's death was accidental. He had an accidental fall and he died. I mean, the movie wasn't supposed to be about that.

In your work and looking at a lot of these cases, have you seen any patterns as to why people are wrongfully convicted?

There are so many common threads throughout. I've met 270-plus exonerees. I've been to all the conferences and events I could possibly go to, and I've talked to all of them, and you would be amazed at the nobility and humbleness at the people in this room. You wouldn't even know that you're in a room with all of these people that spent so many years in prison -- wrongfully. And I'll talk to them about their stories, and it's like, 'Oh yeah, I know that story.'

Witness misidentification is the number one reason. It's just so unreliable. And 50 percent are forensic science problems, junk science...And 25 percent [are] false confessions.

Fifteen percent are unreliable police informants. Any case where there's a police informant, it's such a red flag. And then there's an unknown number of police and prosecutorial misconduct, and that's where I stand. My case was definitely police misconduct. I say my case, but it's really my brother's case.

Is there anything that you think could be changed within our legal system that would stop as many people from wrongfully being convicted?

Yes. There are so many things that could be changed so easily without lifting too much weight, and without a lot of money.

Interrogations, for one thing. How they conduct them. Why aren't they all videotaped and audio taped? All of it from beginning to end, not just the good parts. The way lineups are conducted. That's where misidentification comes in.

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Innocence Project.
Kenny and Betty Anne Waters.

Things are happening because the public is more aware, thanks to DNA. I mean, if it wasn't for DNA, first of all, I don't think my brother would have made it out of prison. It took too long. I didn't find the fingerprints yet, I didn't find them until three years ago. But people with DNA are learning that our justice system is definitely broken. And we have to do something about it. A lot of people, unless you're directly involved like myself -- I didn't think about the justice system. I thought it was just fine, I thought only guilty people went to prison. But now, knowing what I know, and having gone through what I went through, I'm really saddened by what happens in our own country. I'm saddened by the death penalty. I'm saddened because now I know so many people that died who I'm quite sure were innocent. And it was at the hands of our country. We're supposed to be a civilized country.

You dedicated a very big part of your life to getting Kenny out of jail. What have things been like since?

I do this. I feel like this is important. I honestly feel like whenever I do this, Kenny is still here. And I sort of feel like this has just been put in my lap, and I have to do something.

So we talked a little bit about the settlement. Did that bring closure, is there anything else you're working on related to your brother's case?

Well, the civil case isn't totally over. There is one insurance company that was a hold out, I guess you call it. So it's not totally finished.

I'm working to help other people now just to keep the momentum going. Like this case I'm working, this family reminds me a lot of my family. They're a big Irish family and this person's been in almost 18 years, and I truly believe he's innocent. I'm trying to do everything to help him, but so far nothing is working. But we'll see. It's a little personal, though, its a little too personal. I mean, it feels too close to home. And I think this will be the last one-on-one case that I take. Because it's just - it feels too much like my brother.

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