Major motion picture now in theaters – 'Conviction':
RIC alum battles to free brother from prison

Betty Anne Waters
Betty Anne Waters fought the justice system and won, overturning her brother’s murder conviction. How the RIC grad did it is now being portrayed in an independent film called “Conviction." (See preview.)

Oscar-winner Hilary Swank plays Betty Anne Waters, a waitress, bartender and single mother of two, whose brother Kenneth Waters (played by Sam Rockwell) is sentenced to life in prison for murder in 1983. Over the next three years, the Waters family exhausts all funds in an effort to seek an appeal. That’s when Waters (who never finished high school) decides to go back to school, become a lawyer herself and work within the judicial system to prove her brother’s innocence.

Directed by Tony Goldwyn, “Conviction” has been described as an exploration of the profound bond of love between a brother and a sister, the kind of love that never says die. The film follows Waters as she earns her GED and three college degrees while working part time at Aiden’s, a restaurant and pub in Bristol. It takes 18 years for her to complete her education.

In 1991 she graduated from RIC with a BA in economics. In 1994 she earned an MAT from RIC in elementary education. In 1998 she earned a law degree at Roger Williams University. After passing the bar, Waters’s first client – her only client – was her brother Kenneth.

Hilary Swank stars as Betty Anne Waters in "Conviction."

According to national news accounts, Kenneth’s troubles with the law began at an early age. The Waters family (10 children in all) lived in the small town of Ayer, Mass. When Kenneth was 10, he broke into the trailer home of his neighbor – German-born Katharina Brow. Kenneth was arrested and sent to reform school.

Eventually the Waters family moved to Rhode Island, but in later years Kenneth returned to Ayer to live and work as a cook in a diner. In 1980 Brow’s home was broken into again. She was robbed of $1,800 in cash, her jewelry was stolen and she was brutally stabbed more than 30 times.

According to news accounts, Waters had a lengthy police record by then and was known by neighbors as a brawler and heavy drinker. He was questioned and fingerprinted, but court documents showed that police found no evidence linking him to the crime. Court records also revealed that the lab tests of bloodstained curtains in Brow’s trailer (submitted by prosecutors as the blood of the killer) were only able to prove that Waters shared the same blood type as the assailant.

Sam Rockwell costars as Kenneth Waters.
For two years the Brow murder went unsolved. But in 1983 Kenneth Waters’s former girlfriend (the mother of his daughter) stated in court records that Waters admitted to killing Brow.

Court records also disclosed that another witness—a waitress at the diner where Kenneth Waters worked—testified that several weeks after the murder, Waters sold her a ring that she recognized as belonging to Brow.

After a five-day trial, Waters was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility for parole.

In 1998, as a new lawyer, Betty Anne Waters contacted attorneys at the New York-based Innocence Project, founded by Attorney Barry Scheck, an organization known for reversing convictions through DNA testing.

In 1999 Waters’s DNA was tested against the DNA found on the bloodstained curtains. Waters’s DNA didn’t match. In 2001 he was exonerated.

Kenneth and Betty Anne Waters (Photo: CBS News)
According to a February 2010 article “The Reluctant Hero,” by John Larrabee and Russ Olivo of the Rhode Island Monthly magazine, prosecutors considered a retrial and suggested Waters could have acted with an accomplice, but when “the defense team got the lead witness, Kenny’s ex-girlfriend, to recant her testimony,” the case was dropped.

Six months after being released from prison, Kenneth died as a result of head injuries suffered from a fall off a 15-foot wall. A news source reported, “he was scaling the wall in an attempt to take a short cut.” Betty Anne Waters never practiced law again. According to Larrabee and Olivo she does pro-bono work for the Innocence Project, mainly speaking engagements. She is also co-owner of Aiden’s – the pub where she used to bartend. And Barry Scheck filed a civil suit against the town of Ayer on behalf of the late Kenneth Waters’s estate. In 2009, $10.7 million was awarded.

Reporters Larrabee and Olivo said, “filmmakers began ringing [Betty Anne’s] phone as soon as the gavel came crashing down in the courtroom.” Now filmmaker Goldwyn is retelling Waters’s incredible story.