Synopsis: A working mother puts herself through law school in an effort to represent her brother, who has been wrongfully convicted of murder and has exhausted his chances to appeal his conviction through public defenders.
Director: Tony Goldwyn
Writer: Pamela Gray
Stars: Hilary Swank, Sam Rockwell and Melissa Leo
Serious Jest: (Must Own) As a practicing attorney with substantial trial and appellate experience, I usually hate movies and shows about law, especially the courtroom scenes. Directors often “Hollywoodize” compelling and exciting real-life cases, “dumbing down” the American legal system, and adding unnecessary dramatic factors that actually result in making them cheesy, hokey, or outright ridiculous. Moreover, these Hollywood court scenes mislead the American public about how our courts work. Of course, if you are not a lawyer, you may not care much until the next time you’re on your soapbox ranting about how Casey Anthony got one over on our “broken” legal system; but try to imagine being a football fan and watching a movie in which the heroic team scores a 10-point touchdown to win the game.
Allow me to digress a bit: In my last year of law school, through Florida’s Certified Legal Intern Program at the Miami-Dade Public Defender’s Office, I co-chaired my first real jury trial. I had requested assignment in the Felony Division, although some of my clinical professors had warned me that less cases actually went to trial there, and those lawyers were less willing to let a law student try cases with them when so much was at stake. Still, through hard work, aggressiveness, and impeccable work product, I managed to gain my supervisors’ trust, and I happened to be at the right place at the right time when one of them, Robert (a fellow Veteran), offered me the chance to try an attempted murder with him.
Our client, William, a former felon, was hanging out on a side street off of Calle Ocho in Little Havana when a fight broke out, and someone shot a gun. The police were around the corner, and they immediately ran toward the crowd. Everyone ran, and the cops caught William. They roughed him up, and asked him who shot the gun. When he didn’t give an answer, they arrested him, and three officers accused him not only of shooting a gun, but of shooting it at them. There were a couple of very large holes in the officers’ stories, and they even contradicted each other, but many defense attorneys were hesitant to try the case because, as my cousin later articulately put it, “Three cops say he did it, he did it.” William sat in pre-trial incarceration for 3 years while different defense attorneys continued the case, then passed it off, until Robert got the file, read through it, and told me he thought we could win this case. After reading the file, I wholeheartedly agreed.
We went to see William at the detention facility together for the first time. William spoke very little English, and Robert didn’t speak Spanish, so I took the lead in client communication, and spent many hours visiting William and discussing his case with him. William was no saint, and had made some bad choices in his life, but he also was not a bad or violent person. He was actually trying to get his life together, but had kept hanging around some of his old friends, and ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Shortly before trial, the prosecution offered a plea bargain. We had laid most of our cards on the table in an attempt to get them to drop the charges. The officers’ stories conflicted, and didn’t make sense. But the prosecutors shared my cousin’s view; if three cops said William shot that gun at them, that’s what happened…and the prosecutors figured that the jury would probably believe that, too. Still, they offered a 6-year deal (with 3 years time served), just in case. We estimated that William would get 5 years just for being convicted of possessing a gun as a former felon, and probably 30 if convicted of attempted murder of the officers.
I relayed that offer to William, and asked him what he wanted to do. He asked me right back what I thought that he should do. I replied that, regardless of what the rest of us believed, only he knew what really happened that day. If he did what they were accusing him of doing, then 3 more years in jail was a bargain compared to the 30 that his crimes merited. But if he was innocent, I continued, I truly believed that the truth would shine in court. I added that, personally, it would forever haunt me to admit guilt for something I didn’t do, and lose 3 more years of my life without a fight.
William looked at me with tearful, sincere eyes, and said, “I didn’t do what they are accusing me of. But who am I? I’m a piece of shit…an ex-con…a nobody. It doesn’t matter what really happened, because if 3 police officers say I did this, the jury’s going to take one look at me and convict.”
I broke a personal rule and told him what to do: “William, you say you didn’t do it, and I believe you. I am very confident that the jury will see the truth, and Robert and I are going to fight for you like no other attorneys in this world will. I can’t guarantee you a victory, but I can guarantee that, when this is all said and done, you will know that you stood up for yourself with everything you had…like a man…that you didn’t just get rolled over by some crooked cops, like a nobody. Let’s fight, William.” William rejected the plea offer.
Maybe I’ll talk more about the trial on the podcast at some point in the future, but for now, let’s just say that the truth set William free in court. Among other blatant discrepancies, the police officers tried to explain why they never returned fire at the man that allegedly stepped out from the crowd and fired 3 different shots, each aimed at a different officer. The jury didn’t buy the I-didn’t-want-to-risk-shooting-another-gang-member-in-the-background excuse. In closing argument, I declared, “We live in Miami. We know you shoot at a cop, you die.” By the time the objection was sustained, every jury member was nodding his or her head so hard that I thought they would get whiplash. The verdict took 30 minutes. I got to walk William out of the courtroom, shake his hand, and send him back to a life that he would now cherish more than ever.
In Conviction, Rockwell’s hopelessness when Swank visits him in jail, and Swank’s attempts to inspire hope and refusal to cut his last lifeline, are nothing short of brilliant. They remind me of my heart-to-heart with William that day at the detention center (although Kenny Waters was facing life without parole, and Betty Anne Waters sacrificed much more and overcame much greater odds to help her client than I did, but you get the idea). The whole cast, for that matter, is top-notch, and delivers an outstanding performance throughout. Ele Bardha did not have many speaking lines, but his non-verbal performance was textbook.
This film is only based on a true story, and not a documentary, so it’s obviously not 100% representative of the real Waters case. However, the movie is very realistic, and relies on its compelling story and convincing actors, rather than Hollywood courtroom gimmicks. This is one of my favorite legal movies, and I plan to research the actual case further. Anyone who has dreamed of going to law school to fight injustice should see this movie, as should anyone who is fascinated by the law. Attorneys should keep a copy of this film in their collections, and put it on every once in a while when they need a reminder of why they “crossed the bar” in the first place.