“True Conviction” is another excellent documentary from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival that examines the vagaries of the legal system and law enforcement. It is a powerful meditation on the indifference to downright antipathy of some members of the legal system toward poor, middle-class and working-class citizens.
An argument can also be made that the relatively less educated also seem more apt to be caught up in such situations, regardless of income level. Somewhat reminiscent of possibly the most famous documentary on wrongful conviction, Errol Morris’ “The Thin Blue Line,” director Jamie Meltzer makes use of noir elements and dramatic animation for re-enactments of the crimes of which some of the men were accused. Like “The Thin Blue Line,” “True Conviction” also examines cases that occurred in Texas. The film’s real power, though, lies in the subjects chosen by Meltzer. You just can’t not like this trio of soft-spoken, strong-willed, snazzy-dressed survivors dedicated to defending and fighting for justice. They are the literal embodiment of the being the change you want to see.
Christopher Scott was imprisoned for 13 years for murder. Steven Phillips and Johnnie Lindsey were each imprisoned for 26 years for murder and rape, respectively. All were eventually found to be innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted. Meltzer, who also teaches in a master’s program in documentary filmmaking at Stanford University, stressed that with this film he “really wanted the focus to be on these three guys and how the experience they went through kind of formed their passion for what they’re doing and again the social and familial costs of incarceration with these wrongful convictions.”
He added, “I felt like that hadn’t been done exactly the way I wanted to do it and I thought that might be something fresh that people could take away. You really feel like you know these guys.”
After becoming friends as members of a support group for exonerees, Scott, Lindsey and Phillips have banded together to form a detective agency with a twist, the House of Renewed Hope. It is a name one would, under normal circumstances, associate with spiritual rehabilitation as opposed to criminal investigation. Lindsey explained that this name is especially significant because of the bottomless anguish and stark hopelessness that tends to eventually plague those who are wrongfully convicted. He said the experience “dehumanizes you after so long because there’s no hope.”
He continued, “There’s no hope on the inside, there’s no hope on the outside and there’s definitely no hope in the judicial system.”
The crimes the men of House of Renewed Hope solve are the ones carried out by police officers, prosecutors, incompetent defense lawyers, cowardly and deceitful witnesses and negligent judges. The agency is an ironic commentary on a system that has forfeited its duty to check itself that such an organization exists, but it also serves as a prototype for the way in which society will have to function if there is to be any expectation of it being just, one that will demand vigorous oversight by citizens.
When asked what could be done to stem the tide of these cases, which appear to affect every strata of society except the wealthy, Scott responded that the public must, “get involved with legislation.” He said, “We have to put the right people in the right positions in order to get change. If the same people are in the same positions, there won’t ever be change. We’ve got to start holding judges and prosecutors accountable for the wrong things they are doing in the courtroom.”
When asked about the implications of the appointments of Jeff Sessions as attorney general and Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, Phillips replied, “There has been a shift. There is a shift in play with our new president and all that. For maybe eight or nine years now there’s been a look at the criminal justice system and wrongful convictions and prosecutorial misconduct. People were really looking at that but now there’s a check to that. We’ve got a new administration saying you know, enough of that and to prove it we’re gonna go with Jeff Sessions. And so I think it’s come a long way, but now it’s gonna slow down a bit probably. It’s really up to us to remind them there are still people in there wrongly convicted, there’s still prosecutorial misconduct and we’re not gonna stand for it. We’re the people.”
“True Conviction” is now playing at the Tribeca Film Festival and will be available via digital platforms such as Amazon or iTunes in the near future.