Movie Review: “Conviction” based on a true story

“You would do that for your brother, right?” Betty Ann Waters asks her two sons in the final scene of the film, “Conviction” (in theaters October 15, 2010). But when you ask yourself this question after watching the true-life account of a Massachusetts high-school dropout's quest to free her wrongfully-convicted brother,  Kenneth Waters, it is even more daunting to try to answer it.

Academy Award winner Hilary Swank and Sam Rockwell represent the troubled siblings in “Conviction”,  a true story of how a rambunctious, small-town man with a rap sheet and a dirty cop didn't mix.  After initially being cleared of the brutal killing of a young waitress in the town of Ayers, Mass., two years later Kenneth Waters ends up being incarcerated for 18 years based on two witness accounts (apparently coerced by a cop with an agenda) putting him at the scene of the crime.

Flashbacks to Betty Ann and Kenneth's tumultuous childhood, jumping from foster home to foster home, give us hints of the strong bond that existed between them which compelled the working-class wife and mother to mount an all out war in 1983 against the justice system who put her brother away for life.

She did not surrender until he was exonerated in 2001. She sacrificed a life of her own, her husband, and two children to prove her brother's innocence. However, a very determined Waters was up against all odds; besides the lack of a supportive family, the suburban housewife didn't have a high school diploma, the most basic education she needed to confront the authorities she was battling.


Hilary Swank as Betty Ann Waters in “Conviction”

Her mission started by getting a GED, then a Bachelors Degree, and adding to her impressive determination,  passing the Bar and being awarded a Law Degree so she could represent her own brother in his pursuit of freedom. Over  the course of 18 years, she did not give up — though her own brother tried to commit suicide while in prison.

The key to Kenneth Waters' release was the discovery and admissibility of DNA testing, but even this had its complications; fifteen year-old evidence was presumably destroyed, an uncooperative D.A., and threatened witnesses reluctant to tell the truth made for an incredible number of obstacles to overcome… and which might have made anyone with the slightest doubt give up, too.

Betty Ann Waters succeeded in setting her brother free with the help of attorney Barry Scheck (of later O.J. Simpson fame), and his Innocence Project, an organization dedicated to helping those who believe they have been wrongly accused and convicted. However, even this respected organization faces a system unwilling to recognize that it has put the wrong person behind bars.

This excellent film is sure to move you to your core, and perhaps even make you rethink your own relationship with your siblings and family. It is a compelling story with excellent performances which include Peter Gallagher as Scheck, Mini Driver as Betty Ann's loyal law-school buddy, and Juliette Lewis (though her white-trash look is a bit overdone).

This heart-wrenching legal drama will likely also make you reassess how freely we live our lives, and yet how quickly things can go wrong.  “Conviction” not only recounts an extraordinary true story,  it makes us keenly aware that this injustice could happen to anyone and that our justice system is still terribly flawed. 

Undeniably, it was Waters' conviction that led her to this benevolent achievement, but the movie leaves us with this remaining question: “Would you do this for your own brother?”  

“Conviction” is rated R for violence and language.

Notes: Sadly, Kenneth Waters died six months after his release in an unfortunate accident. Also, a number of issues have been highlighted in the media on the eve of this movie's release. The family of the slain victim appeared in a press conference represented by Gloria Allred claiming neither Swank, who signed on as executive producer, nor anyone associated with the film contacted them to find out how they felt about this account.

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