In 1983, Betty Anne Waters’ brother, Kenny, was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. So, Betty Anne did what any sister would do, she put herself through law school, became a lawyer and, with the assistance of the Innocence Project and newly-instituted DNA testing, finally got her brother exonerated after serving 18 years. Betty Anne knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that Kenny was innocent and never gave up hope that he would finally be freed. And she was right, DNA testing proved that none of the blood found at the murder scene was his. Betty Anne’s remarkable story has been turned into an inspiring and profound motion picture called Conviction.
Recently, I had the great honor, along with Ed Davidson from the MacGuffin Podcast, of meeting and interviewing Betty Anne and it is something that I will not soon forget. While being a remarkable woman, Betty Anne is also unassuming and very personable, although somewhat unaccustomed to promoting a film.
“I’m not used to this because I’m not Hollywood,” she told us. “So, I went from Rhode Island to New York to London to Dallas and then here without going home.” However, the travelling has not affected how she feels about the film. “Oh, it’s unbelievable. I’ve seen it 3 times. And I still can’t believe it’s about me. It’s like, as soon as it starts, I start crying. It’s too real, it’s too real.”
The realism of the film was brought up to Bettya Anne, to which she responded, “That’s why I cry. Because it’s real. It’s funny, it’s hard for me to judge Hilary a lot. Especially when it’s somebody playing you, but, I know from other people that have listened to her talk that they think it’s me talking. Family think it’s me talking, which is amazing. And I know how, she sent her dialect coach to my house and he’d tape me for two hours. So that was her first introduction to me. It’s kind of like Abra, who’s played by Minnie (Driver), we talk fast, and it’s kind of a joke between people that know us, they say we talk Abra-ese. Nobody else understands us. And so it was this big joke that they had to learn to talk like me. You know, but she did, she nailed it. One night, we were coming off set, and she jumped into a van with my niece and nephew there, and she started repeating everything on that tape. And my nephew is like ‘Why do you do all this crazy stuff? Dropping off dogs, and ugh’, and then he realized it was her talking.”
And she is correct, sitting there talking to the real Betty Anne one can’t help but picture Hillary Swank’s performance in the film, that’s how closely Swank has captured the real person. At times it was almost surreal. Talk turned to the Innocence Project, an organization that was key in helping free Kenny Waters. Betty Anne still works with the group to free those wrongly imprisoned and it doesn’t seem to be something she will ever stop doing. “It became my life. It’s like, I can never not see myself helping them, you know? I’m hoping that this movie will do something to open people’s eyes about the innocent people. And I actually live for the day that somebody’s going to call me and say that because of this movie they did or did not do something and another innocent person goes free. I’ll die a happy woman.”
Talking about the film being great advertising for the Innocence Project, Betty Anne elaborated, “I’m so happy about that because, well, Barry Scheck is my hero. I absolutely love him. I mean, without him, I don’t know if I would’ve gotten my brother free. He helped me so much. And I feel so lucky that now I might be able to help him. To help other people – I really do feel very fortunate.”
The activist is very impassioned about DNA testing being used to exonerate those wrongly accused, and understandably so. However, it isn’t always an easy thing to do as each state has its own laws and practices when it comes to admitting or keeping evidence. “Every state is different. That’s why the New York Innocence Project is trying to pass National legislation, so that DNA testing can be available to everyone everywhere and that the evidence can be preserved everywhere. We didn’t know about DNA, that that was ever going to come about. What it does is, it helps you find guilty people. And it helps keep the innocent people out of prison. So why wouldn’t you want to preserve it, keep it and do whatever you can to protect it?”
As noted previously, Betty Anne has high regard about Hillary Swank’s performance as her, “I think Hillary, she walks like me, she talks like me.” However, what did she think of the actor portraying her brother? “Sam (Rockwell) on the other hand, I thought, okay, the only thing I knew about him was The Green Mile. And he was going to be my brother, oh boy! His stature is nothing like my brother. Sam’s just average,Kenny was huge. And they don’t look alike. But then I met him. He came to my house. He was walking around my house like he wanted to see everything. I’m like, um, ‘Where is he going?’ You know? He would go into my son’s room that has my brother’s weights that he used to use. He picked them up just to get a feel for my brother, you know. I could tell that he wanted to do this right.”
Rockwell’s dedication continued once the cameras were rolling, “I saw him on set doing the scenes. But, you know, he’d do all day long takes. I don’t know what’s going to end up on the scene. So I didn’t know what I was going to see until I saw it. I’m telling ya I was blown away because that’s my brother. And he’s not a one-dimensional character. You know, he has many sides. I think Sam did a really fabulous job.”
Eventually the conversation came around to the heart of the matter, Betty Anne’s unwavering belief that her brother was absolutely innocent and did not commit the murder he was convicted of. “I knew he was innocent. I’ll tell you quickly, first of all, I know Kenny. He does not know how to handle a situation. He’s confronted, he’s going to fight back. But he’s not the aggressor. He’s not going to pick a fight with you. I know he’s not going to break into somebody’s home and kill them for their money or jewelry. I drove an hour and a half the day that this murder happened because it was my neighbor and I was concerned about her. I found out that the police that day asked Kenny to come down for questioning, because anybody with a police record, and Kenny had one, it’s normal procedure. Kenny’s alibi was that he worked at a diner all night, he was a short order cook, and he was in court the next morning for assaulting a local police officer. For the first time ever, I was happy that he was in court. So I was thinking what a perfect alibi. Kenny was arrested 2 and a half years later and everything got twisted and turned – the timecards from the diner went missing only for that week. Things like that happened. So, I know from the evidence, and from knowing my brother, who he is, that he was innocent. That’s why I never doubted him.”
As hinted at in the film, either the police just had it out for Kenny or they really wanted to get a conviction for this horrible crime. Obviously, having lived with the case for so long, Betty Anne has a pretty sound theory of her own.
“I think Nancy Taylor needed a conviction. She wasn’t even a police officer at the time. She didn’t go to the academy until after Kenny’s conviction. She should not have been the head of a capital case. She didn’t even know Kenny until she got a phone call saying ‘I know some information about the person that did this.’ So I think she just wanted to prove that she could solve a murder case. She did it not only to Kenny, she did it to at least one other person. He was released two years after Kenny, Dennis Maher. And she was the police officer involved in coercing witnesses against him. He’s spent 19 years in prison. She did it to prove, I can do this. I can solve this. To be Angie Dickinson, as Kenny would put it.”
And then our time was up. As I said, it was truly an honor to talk to Betty Anne Waters and it is a conversation that will stay with me for the rest of my life. Look for Conviction at a theater near you and watch this amazing story about an amazing woman and her brother. To learn more about the Innocence Project, visit their website and read about the people they have already freed and how you can help support them.
Thank you to Ed Davidson from the MacGuffin Podcast for doing the transcribing on these interviews.