Call it a matter of hoping life imitates art that has imitated life. Betty Anne Waters, the real-life heroine behind the new movie, "Conviction," said she hopes the dramatized account of her life will build momentum in Oklahoma City and elsewhere for legal clinics that help exonerate people convicted of crimes they did not commit.
"People like me always thought that only guilty people are in prison," Waters said. "Now I know that there are a lot of innocent people in prison. How many people in prison are innocent? I hope this movie will open people's eyes and maybe get them to want to change things."
Waters knows all too well about wrongful convictions. In 1983, a Massachusetts court sentenced her brother, Kenny Waters, to life in prison for the murder of Katharina Brow. The victim had been stabbed more than 30 times in her trailer home.
Betty Anne was certain of her brother's innocence. A high school dropout, she put herself through college and law school, becoming a lawyer solely in hopes of helping find something that could lead to Kenny's release. The quest took 18 years, but eventually DNA evidence taken from the crime scene proved her brother was not the killer.
"It's easy (for people) to say, 'Oh, they (people in prison) are guilty of something,' and that's not fair," Betty Anne Waters told Oklahoma Gazette.
She's continuing her fight against injustice. On April 9, Waters will be a featured guest at a gala fund-raiser for a special legal clinic planned at the Oklahoma City University School of Law. The Oklahoma Innocence Clinic, tentatively scheduled to open in 2011, will work toward the exonerations of the wrongfully convicted.
OCU law dean Lawrence Hellman is optimistic that "Conviction," in which actress Hilary Swank portrays Waters, will spotlight the need for the clinic.
"When people see that this happens," Hellman said, "I think they will want to help us put into place this clinical program where our students, working with professors and volunteer lawyers, will examine cases where there is a possible claim of innocence and a legal remedy that can be obtained."
The school, which hosted a screening of "Conviction" last month, has raised enough funds for the clinic to open in the fall of 2011. Hellman said $1.5 million is needed to operate the clinic for the first five years.
Of the estimated 60 such clinics in the U.S., Hellman said more than half are affiliated with law schools. Oklahoma is one of a handful of states in which no such entity currently exists to evaluate post-conviction claims of innocence.
According to the OCU law school, Oklahoma has 18 incidents of people being released after being wrongly imprisoned. The state ranks in the top 10 in the nation for the number of known wrongful convictions.
Several of those cases drew national attention in 2001. Scandal surrounding the forensics analysis of disgraced Oklahoma City police chemist Joyce Gilchrist resulted in a number of high-profile exonerations, including Jeffrey Todd Pierce, who had served 15 years behind bars for a rape he did not commit.
Perhaps the most notorious case in Oklahoma stemmed from the 1982 slaying of an Ada woman. Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz were convicted of the killing; Williamson was sentenced to death and Fritz was to serve a life sentence. DNA analysis more than 12 years later led to the release of both men and actually linked the murder to a man who had been a key prosecution witness against the pair.
Their story was chronicled by author John Grisham in a 2006 nonfiction book, "The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town." Last year, Grisham visited OCU to help raise money for its Innocence Clinic.
Hellman emphasizes, however, that the phenomenon of innocents in prison is a national problem.
"We've had some very startling examples throughout the country and certainly here in Oklahoma, where we've had to do a reality check and realize that the people who are convicted are sometimes innocent," he said. "Every year there are 20 to 30 more exonerations achieved, and Oklahoma is among the last states to have a standing program. We are not pointing fingers at the Oklahoma criminal justice system. We're just saying it's a system like every other state. It's operated by human beings, and it's possible for there to be errors."
Editor's note: read a review of "Conviction."
photo Betty Anne Waters. Photo/Christian Coulson