December 14, 2010 -- This is an inspirational movie based on a true story about a woman's love for her brother and how she accomplished a nearly impossible legal feat with a little help from some friends and sheer determination. It will make you reconsider the death penalty if your mind is open to that possibility. It is a very compelling movie, despite the fact that the story hops around back and forth in its time line like a crazed wallaby.
Kenny Waters (played by Sam Rockwell of “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”) is a typical small town hard case with a quick temper and a smart mouth. He's just the kind of guy that can get on the bad side of a cop at the wrong time, and that's what happens when police arrest him for murder and he is convicted, years after the murder took place on the basis of hearsay and circumstantial evidence. If this happened in Texas, he'd be dead, but it is in Massachusetts, which has no death penalty. Waters is despondent and tries to kill himself in prison. His sister, Betty Anne Waters (Hillary Swank of “Million Dollar Baby”) who believes in his innocence, makes a remarkable deal with him. She will put herself through law school, become a lawyer and do her best to void his conviction, if Kenny will stop trying to kill himself. What makes it even more remarkable is that Waters doesn't even have a high school diploma when she starts her quest.
Before this story arrives at its conclusion (you can guess what that is) both Kenny and Betty's determination and endurance are tested. It takes years for Betty, a single mother after the breakup of her marriage, to put herself through college and law school, after getting her GED. She is incredibly lucky, however, that the evidence records were still in the courthouse where Kenny's trial was held, years after they were supposed to be destroyed. The blood evidence which matched Kenny's blood type, shows that it doesn't match Kenny's DNA. He is innocent, but a newly-elected district attorney (Martha Coakley, who is now attorney general of Massachusetts) won't void the conviction without more evidence. With the aid of famed attorney Barry Scheck (Peter Gallagher of “While You Were Sleeping”) of the Innocence Project, she is able to get enough additional evidence to finally free her brother.
Both Swank and Rockwell give great performances, along with Minnie Driver, who plays Betty's friend, Abra Rice. The structure of the film is awkward with way too many flashbacks and scenes which are out of chronological sequence. The case is presented as black and white, when it was probably a bit more complicated. There are some notes at the end of the film regarding a final settlement regarding Kenny's wrongful conviction, but the film fails to mention the fact that Kenny died in an accidental fall just three months after he was released from prison. That little fact would have made Kenny's wrongful conviction and 18 years of imprisonment a lot more meaningful and poignant in the film. Instead, we are given statistics on the number of sentences overturned by DNA evidence. Kenny died a free man, but he should not have been in prison in the first place for that crime.
Some studies have indicated the percentage of wrongful murder convictions may be as high as 50 percent in the U.S. This is particularly true of convictions of people who belong to minorities. One thing that makes this case unusual is that Kenny is white and he was convicted in Massachusetts instead of being a black man convicted in some southern state. Kenny didn't have enough money to hire an attorney, so he got a public defender. This is true of many people convicted of crimes. Another thing that makes this case unusual is that the evidence was still around years after it should have been destroyed. This was a strange case in many ways, and it makes for a very interesting and moving film. This film rates a B.
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