“Conviction” tells a compelling tale of the love that siblings can have for one another, and the lengths to which some families will go to seek justice for their kin. This legal drama draws you into the movie from the outset, making you feel that you should have served on the legal team for Kenny Waters. Sam Rockwell, who plays Kenny, deftly portrays the wide range of emotions experienced by a person who has been wrongfully convicted of murder.
The opening of the film aptly sets the scene. The camera pans inside a trailer home with blood-stained walls depicting raging violence. We soon learn that the victim’s murderer brutally stabbed her more than 30 times. While chopping firewood for his grandfather, Kenny is soon accused by a local police officer of brutally murdering his neighbor.
Hillary Swank deserves an Oscar for her portrayal of Betty Anne Waters, Kenny’s sister. We see her transform from a person happily in love, to a married mother with two boys, and finally to a divorced mother after she declares to her husband that she will go to college, get a degree, and maybe attend law school to free her brother Kenny from prison. Throughout, she’s a dynamo of unconditional love for her brother.
Kenny is arrested 2½ years after the 1980 murder of Katharina Brow. Betty Anne tells her brother that a criminal defense lawyer wants $23,000 to represent him. Neither Kenny nor Betty Anne have that kind of money, and she vows to help him beat the charges.
Kenny is tried and convicted of murder and armed robbery. When Betty Anne repeatedly promises Kenny that she’ll get him out of prison, his release is easily foreshadowed.
The sibling bond that Betty Anne and Kenny have for one another was strengthened by the hardscrabble life they shared growing up in and around Ayer, Massachusetts. Their mother had nine children by seven different fathers. In one scene, the local police return Kenny home after he was caught sneaking into a neighbor’s home with Betty Anne where the two had gorged themselves on candy. When their mother says that she’ll deal with Kenny later, a policeman responds, “treat him like trash, they’ll grow up to be trash.”
The real story, though, is how Betty Anne went from working as a waitress and bartender at a Rhode Island pub, to going to school to set her brother free. Kenny didn’t trust lawyers, and his low self-esteem issues were intense after losing so many appeals, but he always trusted his sister. It just made sense, Kenny told Betty Anne: his sister should be his lawyer.
She does, ultimately going to Roger Williams University School of Law in Rhode Island. While there she becomes friends with Abra Rice, played by Minnie Driver. They learn about DNA evidence in law school, and are convinced that test of Kenny’s DNA could ultimately set him free. Both women navigate the Massachusetts judicial and law enforcement systems to help free Kenny.
DNA wrongful conviction lawyer Barry Scheck (played by Peter Gallagher) and his Innocence Project at Yeshiva University’s Cardozo School of Law are promoted throughout the film. Scheck ultimately agrees to take Waters’ case. “Barry Scheck is gonna help,” Abra tells Betty Anne. When another legal challenge appears later on, moviegoers hear that, “We have Barry on our side, and we will fight this!” Can you hear the trumpets playing in the background?
Setting Kenny free doesn’t simply involve testing his DNA to exclude it from the murder scene. It is, however, a critical step. His release ultimately reveals what else must be proven to get out of prison. We learn about the lies and threats that put him there in the first place.
While we celebrate Kenny’s eventual freedom, we never learn that Kenny ultimately died within six-months after his release from prison.
“Conviction” is a powerful movie. Just hearing Hilary Swank call out, “No, that evidence exists somewhere, and I’m gonna find it!” is reason enough to attend a showing with your lawyer friends. It might even motivate you to be a lawyer.