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Barry Scheck Headshot

The Story Behind "Conviction" and a Path to End Injustice

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Twelve years ago, we received a letter at the Innocence Project from Betty Anne Waters. Her brother Kenny Waters had been convicted of a murder he said he didn't commit, and she had devoted her life to proving his innocence. She wrote: "The day that my brother was unjustly convicted of this crime has changed not only his life, but mine."

Betty Anne's two decade quest to free her brother is told beautifully in the movie Conviction, which opens today (Friday) in select theaters. After Kenny was convicted, he tried to commit suicide. In return for pledge he would not kill himself, Kenny made Betty Anne promise she would become a lawyer and clear his name. At the time she was a married high school drop-out with a G.E.D. and two children. And she did it! She went to college, law school, passed the bar, and in 2001, working with the Innocence Project, Betty Anne obtained exculpatory DNA test results, witness recantations, and ultimately Kenny's release from an 18 year nightmare incarceration for a crime he didn't commit.

Betty's Anne's dedication in seeking justice for her brother was truly extraordinary, but the injustice Kenny suffered was far from unique. Wrongful convictions like his are far too common in the United States, and our criminal justice system is falling short on enacting safeguards to prevent them. It took nine years (two, maybe three Hollywood lifetimes) to get this movie made, but the final product is a powerful film with enough spiritual integrity, good laughs, and emotional complexity to be worthy of Betty Anne, Kenny, and their struggle for freedom. All of us who were part of that effort are immensely grateful to Tony Goldwyn (director), Pam Grey (screenplay), Hilary Swank, Sam Rockwell, Minnie Driver, Melissa Leo, Peter Gallagher, and Juliette Lewis (what a cast!) for getting this right. There are now fifty projects in our Innocence Network in the United States and seven abroad who are working every day to exonerate the innocent and reform the system in a way that enhances the capability of law enforcement to apprehend the guilty. We hope Conviction will shine a bright light on that work.

More than 250 people have been exonerated through DNA evidence in the U.S., and in more than 110 of those cases the DNA testing also pointed to the identity of the real perpetrator. The mission of the Innocence Project is not just to clear the innocent, but to improve the criminal justice system to keep the public safe and prevent injustice and error. We know that the 259 DNA exonerees are just the tip of the iceberg. DNA evidence is available in only 5-10% of criminal cases in the U.S., but the causes of wrongful conviction are universal. Three-quarters of wrongful convictions overturned through DNA testing involved eyewitness misidentification. More than half involved unvalidated or improper forensics. False confessions, prosecutorial misconduct and unreliable snitch testimony were also leading factors.

In the 18 years that the Innocence Project has worked to exonerate innocent people and to reform the system, we've seen some great progress. When we first formed the organization, there were no state laws providing access to DNA evidence -- now there are 48 (only Oklahoma and Massachusetts, Kenny Waters' home state, still lack these critical laws). Evidence preservation practices have also improved. Several states have formed commissions to examine the causes of wrongful conviction and recommend reforms. But we need to do more.

A bill currently pending before the U.S. Senate would be a huge step in the right direction. The bill, championed by Virginia Senator Jim Webb, would form a nonpartisan national criminal justice commission to examine our criminal justice system and recommend reforms. This body could take a thorough look at the causes of wrongful convictions and the reforms proven to address them nationwide. The bill has passed the House and has the support of the Senate Judiciary Committee. We urge Senators to prioritize a vote when they return to session in November. A National Criminal Justice Commission could help prevent injustices like one suffered by Kenny Waters and his family.

Conviction tells a story about just one family's fight against injustice, but there are many others -- every time an innocent is imprisoned a family pays a steep price. We can all work together to prevent miscarriages of justice and reform our system. I urge you to join us by getting involved at InnocenceProject.org/conviction.