By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 23, 2010)
In May of 1980, the body of a woman named Katherina Brow was discovered in her Ayers, Massachusetts home by her daughter-in-law. Brow had been brutally murdered (30 stab wounds) and police found what they believed to be the murder weapon, a bloody paring knife, still on the premises. Brow’s purse and a few other valuables were missing, so the motive appeared to be robbery.
Based on circumstantial evidence, one of Brow’s neighbors, Kenny Waters, became an immediate suspect; police retained him for questioning the day after the murder, but he was released after providing a verifiable alibi. A few months later, he voluntarily submitted to a voice stress test, which he passed.
The case remained opened until the fall of 1982, when the then-current boyfriend of one of Waters’ ex-girlfriends approached investigators, claiming to have incriminating information about Waters, which he would divulge in exchange for money (it has never been confirmed whether he was paid).
After receiving corroboration from the ex-girlfriend (which she later would claim to have agreed to give only because police allegedly threatened to charge her as an accessory and take away her children if she did not back up her boyfriend’s story), Waters was officially charged with Brow’s murder. After a relatively short trial, Waters was convicted and sentenced to life in May of 1983.
So far, you’re probably thinking that this sounds like a thousand other murder cases. Someone was killed, someone was now paying for it; I think I’ve seen this narrative played out once or twice on TV, in one of those sordid “true-crime” re-creations hosted by that silver-haired ghoul who they love to satirize on SNL, ho-hum. However, what ensued during the 18 years between May 1983, when Waters began to serve his sentence, and March of 2001, when he was released from prison and officially exonerated of the crime, is the stuff that a movie producer’ dreams are made of.
You see, Waters had a sister named Betty Anne-a loving and devoted sister. How devoted? During the 18 years Kenny languished in prison, she basically put the rest of her life on hold (at the cost of her marriage and relationship with her two sons) to devote heart and soul to one goal: having her brother cleared of a crime that she was 100% convinced he had not committed.
In order to achieve this goal, she first needed to literally become a lawyer, so she put herself through college and law school, and then got to work. This amazing story of a woman taking on “the system” and winning, almost purely through the power of her conviction, has been dramatized in…wait for it…Conviction.
Director Tony Goldwyn has reunited with screenwriter Pamela Gray for this film (they previously teamed up in 1999 on the underrated sleeper, A Walk on the Moon) and it feels like one of the first serious Oscar contenders on the Q4 release calendar, mostly due to some outstanding lead and supporting performances from the cast.
Hilary Swank (getting her Boston brogue on in a big way) plays Betty Anne with a convincing blend of working class spunk, native intelligence and a New Englander’s inborn tenacity. Sam Rockwell, who excels at playing dichotomous characters who manage to be ingratiatingly endearing, yet also darkly unsettling all at once, is in top form as her brother Kenny. And, thanks to the talents of these two lead actors, their relationship is quite touching and real.
Flashbacks to Betty Anne and Kenny’s childhood suggest that their close bond was deeply rooted. This mutual protectiveness could have been necessitated by pure survival instinct; as they spent most of their early years in foster care. It is also clear that Kenny, while possessed of a rambunctiously fun-loving spirit, also had, from a very young age, a propensity for letting it get him into trouble.
There are certain people (and I think we’ve all known personalities like this at some point in our lives) who seem like they were born to clash their entire lives with authority figures, even when they’re not consciously trying to. Kenny was one of those people; suffice it to say he grew up on a first name basis with all the local cops.
Interestingly (at least as depicted in the film) Kenny’s reaction to his arrest and incarceration on the murder charge leans toward a resigned ambivalence throughout the ordeal; it is his sister who, from day one, makes the impassioned case for exoneration.
I’m not sure if this was a conscious decision by the filmmakers to leave the door ajar to the possibility that his sister could have been blinded by love…or if Kenny, like a character from a Kafka novel, had decided to make peace with the rain of bad karma with a shrug of existential indifference.
One wise decision by the filmmakers was to end on a high note, with Kenny’s release ; because the real life coda was, putting it mildly, fraught with karmic cruelty. Six months after his release and official exoneration, Kenny Waters died from a fall in a freak accident (or this could have been cosmic justice-who can say for sure?).
The film also calls attention to the Innocence Project, a non-profit legal organization dedicated to proving wrongly convicted persons innocent through DNA testing (one of the group’s co-founders, Barry Scheck, played a pivotal role in assisting Betty Anne with her case and is well-played in the film by Peter Gallagher).
Swank and Rockwell are ably supported here with noteworthy performances from Minnie Driver (who I feel should get a Best Supporting nomination), Juliette Lewis, Clea DuVall and the always excellent Melissa Leo (cast against type as a corrupt cop).
This is definitely an actor’s movie; which makes sense because director Goldwyn is himself an actor. At the end of the day, although Betty Anne Waters is undeniably a kind of “superwoman” (and my newest hero) this film is not so much about truth, justice and the American way as it is about real love, dedication and selflessness.