What would you do if you were sent to prison for a crime you did not commit? You’d probably proclaim your innocence to anyone and everyone you could, try to get a good lawyer to fight for you, and hope for the best. Or, if you’re going for a more movie-like approach, launch a daring and dangerous prison escape à la Grand Budapest Hotel. But what if you’re poor and have nothing in the way of support or resources? What would you do if you had little to no hope of getting out? Imagine you’re someone like Isaiah Hill and you’ve spent nearly 40 years of your life behind bars on a robbery charge? You’re a poor, illiterate, black man that was convicted by an all-white Texas jury. Any evidence that might be in your favor is likely long gone, lost or destroyed. Who’s going to help you? Who’s going to care?
There’s that expression that not all heroes wear capes. This certainly applies to Christopher Scott. In 1997 Scott was wrongly convicted of murder and spent thirteen years in prison. He was eventually freed in 2009 when the real killer eventually came forward and confessed. Since his release, he’s dedicated his life to helping free other innocent people. He founded the House of Renewed Hope, a detective agency of sorts that works to exonerate prisoners. Scott and the two fellow exonerees of his “dream team”, Johnnie Lindsey and Steven Philips, are the subject of Jamie Meltzer’s new documentary True Conviction.
True Conviction is a detailed look into these men and their work cracking seemingly uncrackable cases. The sharply dressed group gets together in diners and BBQ restaurants to pour over the many, many letters that come to Scott’s P.O. box from people pleading for help. The men read through these letters and decide which ones seem truthful and worth further investigating. Scott states that when he reads these letters, “If I feel his sorrow, his pain, that’s the letter I choose to work on”.
The film focuses on group’s investigations with two inmates in particular - the previously mentioned Isaiah Hill and Max Soffar, who is on death row for a triple homicide. Scott and company meet with the prisoners, try to gather new evidence, talk to former jurors, judges, and prosecutors, and hit the ground running trying to find any little breadcrumb that might exonerate Hill and Soffar. The film intersperses scenes of the group’s investigations with some backgrounds into their own lives. Scott, Lindsey, and Philips are empathetic, lively, and charismatic individuals. They’re wonderful to watch and relentless in their pursuit of justice. And they’re all spiffy dressers with cool hats. If I was an important Hollywood Producer Type Person, I might greenlight a CBS style detective show about them.
The film also doesn’t shy away from how difficult these investigations are to pursue. In the cases of Hill and Soffar, many decades have passed and strong evidence is hard to come by. With Hill, the group spends the majority of their time just attempting to track down Don Wallace, the man Hill says framed him for robbery. Looking for Wallace becomes, as Scott describes, “like looking for a dead bird in tall grass”. This applies to a lot of evidence they attempt to chase down. Many people may fantasize at playing detective. Few would have the determination and energy of these guys. For Scott and his group, what makes them relentless, dedicated detectives is they know first-hand what their clients have been through and what they are facing.
True Conviction is an inspirational kind of true crime story, which seems like a rarity to me. So many documentaries that revolve around a search for justice don’t leave a lot of room for hope. These three men, having spent decades in prison, are not taking their freedom for granted. Lindsey (who sadly passed away in February this year from cancer), is shown marrying the love of his life, discovering meditation, and joyfully driving go-carts. Scott has embraced his role as a grandfather, regretful of having lost so much time with his own son while he was behind bars. Phillips says that when he got out, he wanted to do something more with the money he got from the state besides “just go to Vegas” before smirking and admitting “...but then I did also go to Vegas”. There’s lots of great little moments that show the personalities of these guys.
I was fortunate that I was able to see this film at a screening in which the director was present, along with Christopher Scott and co-producer Michael May (full disclosure: May was a former instructor of mine). Meltzer said that he wanted people to leave this film “skeptical of the criminal justice system”. Scott echoed these sentiments, stating that 85% of wrongful convictions come from misidentification, largely based in racism, something that is touched upon a little in the film with Scott and Hill’s cases but an area I wish they had delved a little deeper into. There’s no shortage of statistics and evidence that show that African Americans are disproportionately affected by our criminal justice system. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, African Americans make up a majority of exonerations, around 46%.
I was already skeptical of the criminal justice system before seeing True Conviction. However, it’s a story that filled me with a lot of unexpected hope. The story of Scott’s “dream team” and the stories of the people they’re trying to save deserves more recognition. Letters are still filling up Christopher Scott’s mailbox. But True Conviction shows that even when the system is faulty, there are still dedicated people who are showing up and putting in the work to fight for justice. And more importantly, even when it seems like there’s no hope, it shows that justice is still achievable.
The film screens on PBS on 4/30 - http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/films/true-conviction/