Barry Scheck, co-founder and co-director of The Innocence Project, is also a key role in the film Conviction, starring Hilary Swank. Conviction is the true story of Betty Anne Waters, a working mother whose brother was wrongfully convicted of and incarcerated for a violent crime. After getting her GED, a college degree, and passing the bar exam, Betty Anne worked tirelessly to see her brother freed from prison, which happened with the assistance of The Innocence Project.
"There is something very unique about our clients with the Innocence Project," Barry said in a recent interview. "It's a spiritual issue. If you're convicted of a crime you didn't commit, the first few years you're in prison, you're consumed with rage and anger. If you don't find a way to transcend that and have some form of forgiveness, you'll go crazy. A lot of times, people go 'Oh, my God. These people spent so much time in prison for a crime they didn't commit and they have no bitterness.' Well, that's not exactly true. They have their issues, and it's justifiable, against the system that put them in prison.
"But what people are picking up on is the spiritual transcendence that helps these people with their experience. It's allowed them to overcome rage and hatred because it would have consumed them and made their lives in prison horrible."
The truth of that statement was borne out the night of the Hollywood premiere of Conviction. Joining director Tony Goldwyn, cast members Hilary Swank, Sam Rockwell, Minnie Driver, and the real Betty Anne Waters were a dozen men who have been freed from prison through the Innocence Project. When each was given opportunity to share their story, they all attributed their survival in prison to their faith and prayer.
"That's what makes the spiritual witness of these people and their families so special," Barry said. One of the earliest cases Barry got involved with was that of a man who was convicted by the testimony of three eyewitnesses who claimed he robbed and raped a woman at a motel in the Bronx. "In actuality, he was at a prayer meeting with 17 other witnesses at that time.
"We tried to do DNA testing for that case – it happened in 1988, when DNA testing was still new – but didn't have enough for testing. We wound up proving him innocent the old-fashioned way, showing that his prints weren't those that were found, and that some other evidence had been suppressed.
"We realized then that DNA testing was going to be important and got involved on the ground floor in the transfer of this technology from research and medical purposes to the judicial system. That's kind of where we started."
Scheck's work with the Innocence Project was the inspiration for the CSI television series. "According to Jerry Bruckheimer, he got the idea for CSI watching me cross-examine a witness on television. I just wish he'd given the Innocence Project a percentage of that franchise," he said.
There are 49 Innocence Projects in the United States and 7 abroad, and different ones specialize in different kinds of evidence. "Our project only uses DNA, where DNA by itself provides sufficient evidence to exonerate. There are so many cases where the evidence has been lost or destroyed, and so many of those cases involve people I truly feel are innocent."
Betty Anne Waters only became a lawyer to work for her brother's release. She's still a lawyer, but her only clients are through the Innocence Project and involve DNA testing. "She's the real deal," Barry said. "She's a very genuine and truly inspiring and courageous person. Her determination and will were beyond comprehension."
It's that determination and will that attracted the producer, Barry's next door neighbor. "I've been working on this film for nine and a half years," Barry said. "I helped negotiate the rights to the story and worked closely with Tony Goldwyn (the director) and Pamela Gray (the scriptwriter). There's no aspect of the film that I wasn't in some sense involved with."
Barry has written a book called Actual Innocence, and you can learn more about his work at The Innocence Project website.