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Hillel keynote addresses wrongful convictions

Betty Anne Waters spoke of her experiences with injustice as part of Hillel’s Moral Voices Initiative

When Betty Anne Waters was 29, her older brother Kenny was wrongfully accused of murder and sent to prison. She spent the next 18 years fighting for justice, enrolling in community college and then going to law school so she could one day prove his innocence in court.

Waters spoke to students about her experiences with injustice in the criminal justice system yesterday evening as the keynote speaker for Hillel’s Moral Voices Initiative’s year-long focus on wrongful conviction.

About 40 people came to hear Waters’ story in Friedman Auditorium in Metcalf Chemistry and Research Laboratory.  The keynote address by Waters culminated Hillel’s Moral Voices Initiative’s first year on campus. Over the course of the year, the initiative has hosted a number of speakers to discuss wrongful convictions, including the cases of a police detective who unwittingly aided a wrongful conviction and of Dennis Maher, an exoneree who spent 20 years in jail after a wrongful conviction on charges of rape.

Waters explained that wrongful convictions are sometimes due to police incompetency, but 70 percent are because of witness misidentification.

Waters’ story reached a wider audience after the release of the film “Conviction.”  The film  involved Waters in the production process and is based on her life.

Waters, the fourth of nine children, grew up in the small town of Ayer, Mass. She was close to Kenny growing up as he was only one year older.

“People used to say they never saw a family closer than ours,” Waters said.

In 1980, Waters was shocked to hear about the brutal murder of a neighbor in her hometown. She returned home and learned her brother had been questioned, though he had an alibi. Timecards from the diner he worked at confirmed he had been there at the time. The case seemed to go cold.

But two years later, Waters said she learned that her brother had been arrested for the murder. The case had been reopened by Nancy Taylor, a clerk, dispatcher and secretary who had not yet graduated from the police academy at the time. Kenny’s ex-girlfriend had come forward and said Kenny had not gone to work on the night of the murder and had confessed to the murder before they broke up. The timecards that confirmed his alibi had been lost by the police department, Waters said.

Though the ex-girlfriend’s testimony was the only evidence, Kenny was convicted, to the shock and horror of his family, she said. He also lost his appeal two years later.

Waters said she visited her brother after the appeal and found him in segregation at his prison, because he had tried to commit suicide. Desperate for his survival, Waters asked what she could do.

“Betty Ann, the only way I’m going to make it in here is if you go back to school, go to law school, become a lawyer, prove me innocent and get me out of here … If you say you’ll do it, I know you will,” she said he told her.

Waters enrolled at the Community College of Rhode Island, believing that she was keeping her brother alive by pursuing her education. After she graduated, she was accepted at the Roger Williams Law School. As a single mother of two, she struggled to balance her studies with her family life.

She became fascinated by DNA identification and was eventually approached by the Innocence Project, a group that works to exonerate the wrongfully convicted.

Waters tracked down evidence from the crime scene, traveling all the way to Florida where it was in storage, and paid $10,000 for DNA tests. Results showed that blood found at the crime scene did not belong to Waters.

“After 18 years, five months, and three days, Kenny walked out of prison a free person. As bad as it was that he was found guilty, that day was one of the best days of our lives,” Waters said.

After the case, Waters discovered that there had been evidence from the beginning proving Kenny’s innocence, including fingerprints taken the day of the investigation that were lost when the officer who lifted them retired.

Waters said Taylor knew of the evidence proving Kenny’s innocence but pushed the case forward anyway and told Kenny’s ex-girlfriend that her children would be taken away if she did not testify against him. Waters said she suspects that Taylor was trying to further her career in a police force dominated by men.

In a devastating accident, Kenny died from a head injury sustained during a fall six months after his release.

Today, Waters continues to volunteer for the Innocence Project and is a co-owner of Aidan’s, a pub in her hometown of Bristol.

At the end, Waters answered questions from the audience, focusing on the plight of the wrongfully convicted.

According to Waters, over 22 percent of cases from 2002-2004 had to be closed because evidence was lost or destroyed, eliminating any opportunity for exoneration.

Waters said organizations such as the Innocence Project continue to fight for the wrongfully imprisoned. Three hundred and five cases have resulted in exoneration since 1989 and 170 of those exonerations were through the Innocence Project, she said. Eighteen of the exonerated had served time on death row.

“It was the perfect culmination of the entire year,” said Wendy Ginsberg ’15, a member of the Moral Voices’ student committee.

“If you save one life, it’s as if you saved the whole universe,” said Marshall Einhorn, executive director of Brown-RISD Hillel, citing a Jewish proverb.

“I think (Moral Voices) has caught the campus’ attention. We’ve seen increased interest and we’re hopeful that there’s more traction to generate in future years,” he told The Herald.


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