Her Brother’s Keeper

The story of Betty Anne Walters has been made into a movie called “Conviction” starring Hilary Swank, reviewed in today’s NY Times.  It’s a story of the value of perseverance and strength and a reminder of the difficulty involved in exonerating the wrongfully convicted. Betty Anne’s brother Kenny was convicted of  murder in Rhode Island.  He proclaimed his innocence all throughout the process, but his court-appointed attorneys could not get the job done.

His sister Betty Anne decided to do something about it after Kenny attempted suicide in prison when his appeals were exhausted. A waitress at a small pub with only a GED, Betty Anne went back to school, got her BA, got her law degree from Roger Williams University School of Law and passed the bar.  She then worked for nearly two decades until she finally proved her brother’s innocence and won his freedom from jail.

It took dogged investigation, going door to door until she found witnesses who admitted to lying during Kenny’s trial.  When the State told her all evidence containing DNA had been destroyed, she pursued it relentlessly until finally some remaining evidence was discovered.  She then enlisted Barry Scheck and his Innocence Project for assistance. With their  help, the DNA was tested and established with certainty Kenny’s innocence: after 18 years in jail, he was freed. After he got out, having handled precisely one case, she gave up the practice of law and is still working at Aidan’s, the same pub she was at when she started her crusade.

How many siblings would do what Betty Anne did? Through the process, her husband left her and her two boys chose to live with their Dad. The case took over her life because of her belief in her brother’s innocence. It is a clear message to all trial lawyers.  There is no substitute for hard work and diligence.  If you can’t believe in your client, then believe in the rights afforded to him and the need for the system to live up to its promise. There are few difficult cases that can be won without perseverance and dedication.  But it all starts with the fundamental belief that you are seeking justice one person at a time.

Betty Anne now volunteers for the Innocence Project and speaks out against the death penalty (No surprise there, nearly everyone who is involved in wrongful convictions becomes an ardent opponent of the death penalty) . Her brother Kenny?  Well, just 6 months after his release, he was on his way home from a night out, took a shortcut by hopping over a wall, fell and died from a head wound he suffered in the fall. (The movie has a different ending by the way).  After two decades of work and the complete sacrifice of a life over his cause, Kenny only lived for 6 months as a free man.   I can’t imagine what Betty Anne felt and thought when she heard that dreadful news. Here’s her take on it now:

“Kenny had the best six months of his life.” The movie comes out Friday, Oct. 15.

Photo by Steve Senne/AP

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