Reluctant Hero

As a freshly minted lawyer, Betty Anne Waters rescued her brother from a murder conviction. Now that her story is a Hollywood movie, will the spotlight help — or hinder — this media-shy attorney and her latest, controversial case?

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The scene: a Massachusetts courthouse, sometime in the spring of 2000. Betty Anne Waters stands at the front counter of the basement evidence room, peering into a cardboard box labeled with her brother’s name, “Kenneth Waters.” He’s spent the past seventeen years behind prison walls, serving life without parole for the brutal murder of a housewife in Ayer, his hometown, thirty-five miles north of Boston. There were no witnesses to the crime, but during his trial several people testified they heard him make incriminating statements. Through it all, his sister’s belief in his innocence has never wavered. Winning his freedom has become her life quest. Though she dropped out of high school as a teen, her crusade sent her back to the classroom, first at Community College of Rhode Island, then Rhode Island College, then Roger Williams University School of Law. She’s now a brand-new lawyer, with her brother as her only client. 

Inside the box, in a clear plastic bag, Betty Anne sees a blue and green window curtain that once hung in the victim’s home. It’s the lost puzzle piece she’s been desperately seeking. Dark stains are smeared across the cloth, stains that years earlier the prosecutor had presented as . . . the killer’s blood!

If this sounds like a Hollywood movie, in fact it is. Betty Anne Waters, an indie drama starring Hilary Swank, was in post production last fall and is scheduled to hit the cineplex this year. The imprisoned man redeemed is a tale that’s been told and retold on screen, but now it’s getting a fresh spin. This time it’s nonfiction, with a flesh-and-blood hero, and not the lost soul behind bars but an everyday Rhode Islander, an unassuming waitress and single mom blessed with unshakeable resolve.

Ask the real Betty Anne Waters how the movie project got started, and she remembers the ceaselessly ringing phone. The calls began the moment the gavel crashed down in a courtroom and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts overturned her brother’s conviction. They kept coming for weeks, some days almost nonstop.

She ignored them. She knew who they were — agents, screenwriters, directors — but she was too busy fretting about a possible retrial to give them much thought. Besides, she wasn’t looking for attention; the spotlight makes her a little queasy. And the truth is, she really didn’t care much for lawyers. Why would she want to brag about being one?

That was nine years ago. Waters, a fifty-ish woman with hazel eyes and auburn hair, is still reluctant to court publicity and still spouts cynicisms about members of the bar. Today, the Middletown resident is co-owner of Aidan’s, a restaurant and pub overlooking picturesque Bristol Harbor, and spends most of her time running the business. The place is nestled alongside million-dollar condos, but once inside a visitor soon forgets the gentrified waterfront. The atmosphere calls to mind the social hub of a village in Donegal. Quahoggers, daytrippers, sail boaters and Roger Williams students mingle over pints of Bass and Newcastle. The decor is lace curtains, honey-colored wood and photographs of hurling champions. All that’s missing is the aroma of smoldering peat.

Conversing in a cozy booth, Waters can now muster some enthusiasm for the movie business, or at least the biopic she inspired, primarily because she sees it as a public-relations boon for the Innocence Project, a sometimes controversial group that claims to have rescued hundreds of wrongly incarcerated people. And maybe, not so coincidentally, the publicity could help with another notorious case she’s working on closer to home.

“It will put a face to the issue,” she says with the authoritative tone of a nun lecturing fidgety sixth-graders. “It will help people understand how an innocent person winds up in prison. If all this had never happened to my brother, I doubt I would ever believe that innocent people end up there.”

Waters tries her best to dodge some interview questions, though not because she finds them hard to answer. She’s simply considerate of the movie audience. “That would give away everything,” she answers, “from beginning to end.”

She’s being gracious, of course. With all the headlines that followed her brother’s release, spoilers are hardly a concern. Here’s how the story was reported by news organizations around the world:
During her law school days, Waters boned up on DNA profiling, a technology not yet available at the time of her brother’s conviction. She also learned how Innocence Project lawyers were using the new science to reverse convictions and free prisoners. The organization charges no fee for its services, which was the only kind of help she could afford. She contacted Barry Scheck, one of the founders (yes, the aggressive, prickly star of O. J. Simpson’s defense team, who more recently was censured by Judge Mary Lisi in a suit following the death of Providence police officer Cornel Young Jr.). Impressed by her determination, he took the case.

On a bright day in March of 2001, a jubilant Kenny Waters stepped out of the same Cambridge courthouse where he’d been convicted years before, with Betty Anne by his side and a swarm of reporters buzzing around them. The lab tests on the old curtains had revealed someone else left the bloodstains. Confronted with the new evidence, a judge had tossed out his conviction. While Kenny savored his liberty, the media mob pressed him for quotes. “Always take care of your sisters,” he told the CBS crew. “They’ll take care of you.”

The real story includes a tragic epilogue that likely won’t be part of the film. That September, just months after his release, Waters fractured his skull in a fall and died a short time later, with his sister in his hospital room by his side.
There are also some rough spots the screenplay no doubt omits. Was Kenny Waters really a loveable mook, as CBS News and People magazine portrayed him? Not according to some in Ayer. They remember a violent, boozing guy with an ugly police record, and many are skeptical of his claim to innocence. As for Scheck (who declined interview requests), his firm went on to file a civil suit against the town, and last year won a $10.7 million award for the late Kenneth Waters’ estate. The lawyers are entitled to a third of that. Similar suits have followed many Innocence Project exonerations.

In Betty Anne Waters, though, the movie makers have found a true hero for our times: a nobody with nothing, who grabbed hold of a too-often-indifferent government Goliath and squeezed until she heard “uncle.” And in the Great Recession — the age of the underdog if ever there was one — that’s bound to put movie-goers in seats. 

The story began the morning of May 21, 1980, with an emergency call that sent Ayer police racing to a trailer home on Rosewood Avenue. Inside they found Katharina Brow dead on the floor, stabbed more than thirty times. Some jewelry and $1,800 cash she had tucked away in a linen closet were gone.

The cops wasted no time picking up a suspect. The Waters family, with ten kids in all, had left Ayer for Providence years earlier, but Kenny, the wild one of the bunch, had returned. The twenty-six-year-old worked as a cook at the Park Street Diner, where Brow was a frequent customer, and where she’d been heard talking about the money she had saved for a trip overseas. What’s more, as a boy Waters had been caught breaking into her trailer.
Investigators questioned him and took his fingerprints, but they turned up nothing that could link him to the crime. Lab tests on the trailer’s bloodstained curtains showed he shared the same blood type as the killer, but 45 percent of the population matched as well.

For two years the homicide went unsolved. Then police got a tip that Waters had made incriminating statements to Brenda Marsh, his former girlfriend and the mother of his baby girl. She first insisted the allegations were untrue; eventually, however, she talked. Kenny Waters found himself charged with robbery and murder.

During the five-day trial Marsh took the stand and described a heated argument in which Waters admitted he’d killed Brow. Another witness claimed she heard him make similar statements after a night of drinking. And a waitress at the diner testified that several weeks after the murder Waters sold her a ring she recognized as the victim’s. She gave him $5 for the jewelry, never letting on what she knew, and then turned over the item to the police.

Waters’ lawyer offered an alibi defense: He’d been on the job that morning, and then hurried to Ayer District Court to answer an assault charge. That carried little weight with jurors. They found him guilty, and the judge said “Life.”

In the years that followed, Waters’ lawyer filed several appeals, including one asking the court to scrap witness testimony about his alleged admissions on the grounds he’d been TWI — talking while intoxicated. Every effort flopped.

“My brother was ready to give up,” Betty Anne recalls. “He felt there was no way out. He didn’t trust lawyers. Finally he told me, ‘There is no Plan B — you’ll have to go to law school. That’s the only chance I’ll have.’ ”

She seemed an unlikely candidate for the bar. In 1986 she was in her early thirties, married, with two young sons. Her education milestones consisted of a general equivalency diploma and a few college credits. Nevertheless, to give her brother hope she began the uphill trek toward a law degree. “It was a bad time,” she remem-bers. “He was suicidal. I was just thinking it would help keep him alive.”

The next twelve years were a hard road. Her marriage ended in divorce, and to make ends meet she took a job as a waitress and bartender. Through it all, she kept her eyes on the prize.

“She’s been to hell and back in her life, but she’s always strong,” says Aidan Graham, her employer then and her business partner now. “She’s always had this resilience, this passion.”

“I knew she could do it,” adds her kid sister Barbara DeSimone, a waitress at Aidan’s. “When it’s for your brother, you can always do it.”

At Roger Williams law school, down the road from Aidan’s, Waters found an ally ready to help her. “We became best friends the first day,” says former classmate Abra Rice (played on screen by Minnie Driver). “We were both older than the other students, so we felt a kinship right away.”

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