In Conviction Hilary Swank delivers another excellent performance, this time as Betty Anne Waters, sister of Kenny Waters, who is serving a life sentence for the brutal, stabbing murder of a Massachusetts woman in 1980. The film is Tony Goldwyn’s adaptation of the real-life chronicle of Betty Ann’s relentless pursuit of college and law school degrees, becoming her brother’s attorney on a crusade to overturn what she believes in his wrongful conviction.
But it is Sam Rockwell’s performance as Kenny that is most memorable. Rockwell gives reality to Kenny’s range of personas: brother, vicious bar fighter, tender father, incorrigible felon, taunter of police, incredulous arrestee, defiant accused, stoic prisoner, and, ultimately sympathetic victim, daring to believe he might gain freedom after all.
The film dramatizes one of many cases of wrongful conviction overturned through the efforts of the Innocence Project (see https://www.innocenceproject.org/Content/Kenny_Waters.php ). Ultimately, evidence in the case—notably blood believed to be from the perpetrator—was submitted to a private lab whose DNA tests excluded Waters. Subsequently, the state police crime laboratory verified the results, and Waters’ conviction was vacated.
(DNA testing—the analysis of deoxyribonucleic acid, the carrier of genetic information—has been decisive in both convicting numerous felons and exonerating innocent persons. Although DNA was discovered in 1911, only much later was it found that portions of certain genes’ DNA structure are unique to each person. In 1985, English researchers developed a process to isolate and read the DNA markers, and the following year DNA technology cleared a teenager who had been accused of murder. [See my Crime Science , co-authored with John F. Fischer, 1999, 201-205].)
Conviction ends with Waters’ release after almost eighteen years of wrongful incarceration, but there is a tragic irony to the case. Only six months after his release, Kenny died from a freak accident (falling fifteen feet from a stone wall and hitting his head). His sister, however, noted that he died a free man and he had enjoyed every moment of his liberty.
Rating: Three wooden nickels (out of four)