What would you do if someone you loved was being unfairly punished? How far would you go to rectify the situation?
Perhaps few have gone quite as far as Betty Anne Winters. When her brother was convicted for a murder he did not commit, she simply couldn’t sit idly by.
But what could a high-school-dropout-turned-waitress do?
Well, become a lawyer, to start.
As you might have guessed, it takes a very strong relationship between two people to get one or the other to sacrifice so much. This was certainly the case for Betty Anne and her brother, Kenny, who is only one year older than her.
The two grew up in the foster system and experienced many hardships together. It was a rough ride for the siblings.
“We went through three or four foster homes,” Betty Anne told The Sun.
Eventually both Kenny and Betty Anne began working at a local restaurant. Betty Anne had dropped out of high school one year short of completing her degree.
After some time, Kenny was forced to quit his job at the restaurant and return to their hometown in order to look after their ageing grandfather.
It was during this time that a neighbor nearby was robbed and killed. Kenny, who already had a criminal record, immediately became a suspect.
Guilty Despite Innocence
Following Kenny’s arrest, no one was very worried – at first. Kenny had a strong alibi, placing him at work at the time of the murder. He even had a court meeting for an unrelated case, earlier on the day of the crime.
It was therefore ‘clear’ that he was innocent.
“For the first time ever I’m thinking, ‘I’m happy Kenny was in court,’” Betty Anne told The Guardian. “What a perfect alibi.”
This indeed worked, and Kenny was originally released from suspicion. But, strangely, almost three years later, the police were back with a new warrant. Nevertheless, Betty Anne never lost faith and knew in her heart that her brother was innocent.
“The one reason I knew he was innocent was that it wasn’t in his
make-up to be the aggressor,” she told The Sun.
Kenny was charged yet again for the same murder. His family first thought to hire a lawyer, at a cost they could not really afford. They finally decided against doing so, in part because they felt confident that the whole case was a joke.
“Kenny said, ‘Please, don’t do that, because it would just be a waste – all the evidence shows I’m innocent,’” Betty Anne told The Guardian.
With such a strong alibi of being at work at the time of the murder, no one was too concerned. All they needed was evidence that Kenny was indeed at work at the time of the murder. A timecard from the restaurant would, assumably, suffice.
Betty Anne immediately contacted Kenny’s old workplace and requested his timecards.
“I was worried, because it had been more than two years. But the girl in the office said, ‘Yes, I just looked them out for the police, and they’re on their way over now to pick them up,’” Betty Anne said.
But the timecards somehow never made it to court. Kenny’s alibi was destroyed – and so was his defense. He was found guilty and sentenced to jail. It was a devastating blow for Kenny and his entire family. Above all, devoted sister Betty Anne was in shambles.
“There were many difficult moments starting with when he was found guilty because we were all expecting him to come home that day,” Betty Anne said. “We thought that only guilty people went to prison and we knew he was innocent.”
Unexpected road ahead
The family issued an appeal, but it was rejected. That’s when bad turned to worse. Kenny’s mental condition deteriorated, and he tried to commit suicide.
Kenny pleaded with his only hope, his sister, for help. Betty Anne obliged and began to prepare for some major action.
“He actually asked me to go to law school. He said he couldn’t spend the rest of his life in prison, that he wouldn’t make it,” she said. “He said to me, ‘Betty Anne, if you go to law school I know you will find a way to get me out of here and prove me innocent’. So that became the promise between us that would keep him alive.”
The brave and devoted sister grabbed the reins and applied for law school. For the next 12 years, her life purpose was singular: to give her dear brother his freedom back.
“I had a long way to go. I studied for 12 years, starting part-time,” she said. “Then law school itself is three years. In law school you study for eight hours a day, five days a week.”
It was a long and challenging road, not without sacrifice – Betty Anne lost her own marriage in the process.
“My husband used to say, ‘You love your family more than me’. He didn’t see any sense in me studying law. It wasn’t the only reason the marriage ended, but it was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
Betty Anne was left to bring up her two sons — Ben, then aged four, and Richard, six — while juggling law school and bar work at night to make ends meet.
The long, 12-year road finally ended with her successful graduation, rendering Betty Anne high school dropout to certified lawyer. Despite this huge success, her new status left her worried.
“I’m thinking now, ‘What happens if I don’t find something? Where do we go from here?’,” she said.
“The community college had been a less anxious time, because I was just keeping Kenny alive. But now what?”
After graduating from law school, Betty Anne was able to represent her brother as his attorney and request evidence on his behalf. In 1999, she
discovered crucial new DNA evidence that could be the key in freeing her brother: blood samples from the scene of the crime, which had reportedly been destroyed.
DNA evidence was not as developed years earlier at the time that her brother was on trial. With the help of the Innocence Project, an organization which aims to overturn miscarriages of justice, Betty Anne managed to convince the authorities to test the blood for new DNA evidence.
This breakthrough would make all the difference. The samples didn’t match Kenny’s own DNA.
“It took two years after getting the DNA which proved him innocent to finally get him free,” Betty Anne told The Sun. “The DNA evidence should have been enough. It is an odd system. They do not want to admit they made a mistake.”
Finally, after suffering 18 years in jail, Kenny was exonerated. It was a massive victory for both Kenny and Betty Anne.
Sadly, in a tragic turn of events, after breathing freedom for just 6 months, Kenny died from a brain hemorrhage after falling 15 feet while climbing a wall. He was 47-years-old.
“As Kenny would say he had very bad luck,” Betty Anne said.
“And he did. But he also had the best six months of his life. He lived with me for the first three months. And the silver lining is that he died free and innocent.”
The road ahead
But Betty Anne wasn’t done – she sought to additionally prove that the police had purposely jailed an innocent man.
“The DNA evidence exonerated Kenny, but it didn’t prove what the Ayer police did to Kenny, on purpose. And that’s what I wanted to prove,” she told The Guardian.
Betty Anne would continue to fight for an additional 7 years to prove that the authorities had intentionally imprisoned an innocent man.
“They’d tested his prints twice. They knew he wasn’t guilty. They knew from day one that Kenny was innocent,” Betty Anne said.
Following the innocent verdict, Betty Anne ceased working professionally as a lawyer, preferring instead to go back to work at the same bar and volunteer for the Innocence Project in her spare time.
“I like helping the Innocence Project,” she said. “I don’t want to do anything
else. I like my life the way it is. It is a good life. I do case reviews and talk on legislature against the death penalty. If they’d had the death penalty in Massachusetts my brother would have been dead before his release.”
Betty Anne and Kenny’s remarkable story was made into the 2010 film Conviction starring Hillary Swank as Betty Anne and Sam Rockwell as Kenny. I think it’s worth checking out if you haven’t seen it already!
If you were as moved by this sister’s love and devotion to her sibling, please share this story with your own family and friends!