The plot of True Conviction sounds more like a work of fiction than a documentary. Three wrongfully convicted men forming a detective agency to vindicate others falsely convicted of crimes they did not commit has the kind of symmetry that screenwriters love. But director Jamie Meltzer’s remarkable film follows the three very real three exonerated men, doing very real work that is, sadly, very necessary.
In 1997, Christopher Scott was sentenced to life in prison in Dallas, Texas for a murder he did not commit. 13 years later, he was exonerated. After getting out of prison, he founded House of Renewed Hope, with two other exonerated men – Johnnie Lindsey, who spent more than 25 years in prison after being falsely accused of rape, and Stephen Phillips, who served 26 years for a string of crimes he did not commit. Together they attempt to seek truth and justice for others who say they are falsely accused while attempting to make up for lost time the best they can.
Meltzer constructs True Conviction like a true-crime drama, unfolding over the course of two simultaneous investigations. The first, a quadruple homicide pinned on Max Soffar, a meth addict interrogated for almost an entire day before being coerced into what he says is a false conviction. The second, a man who says he was wrongfully put in prison for more than 30 years for robbing $250 from a hotel cashier. The film serves as blistering indictment of the Dallas police department, illustrating how, in the absence of evidence, it takes little more than a prosecutor’s desire to put you in prison to land you there.
In Max Soffar’s case, his prosecutor explains to Scott, Lindsey, and Phillips that Soffar had to be guilty because God gave him a sign on the day of the trial that he was. When Scott asks him if maybe the he wanted Soffar to be guilty and was simply looking for a sign, the prosecutor can’t image that’s the case. These are the waters in which Scott and his crew travel, where veiled racism, bias, and a predilection for guilty verdicts is masked by the divine right of the justice system. It’s not exactly a secret that systemic racist bias is at taint on our country’s entire justice system, but it can still be jarring to see it in motion.
In Christopher Scott’s case, he was simply guilty of being a black man in the wrong neighborhood at the wrong time. Told through heavily stylized animation, we see Scott the night he was arrested, brought in front of the weeping widow of the deceased, alone – not in a lineup, and was identified as the murderer. Case closed.
Melter balances the procedural elements of the film with a more intimate look at Scott, Lindsey, and Phillips’s post-prison life. Phillips explains that for every year they spent wrongfully incarcerated, they receive $80,000 from the state, which allows them to run their detective service, but hardly pays for lost time. Christopher Scott attempts to rebuild his relationship with his son whose fallen in with the wrong crowd in his father’s absence. Over the course of the film, his son is arrested for armed robbery, leaving Christopher’s grandson in his care. Phillips is pulled over at one point and the officer, who looks him up and wrongfully assumes he is a fellon, searches his car and finds a small amount of drugs, leading to his arrest where he waits to see whether the courts will rule the search legal or not. It’s in these moments that we see systemic, cyclical nature of our prison system.
The work of the House of Renewed Hope is defined by large setbacks and small but substantial victories. The film is an apt vehicle through which to investigate what might be the most egregious failing of the justice system. Structuring True Conviction like a procedural crime drama, Meltzer has turned a juggernaut of social injustice into something compulsively watchable, and that’s important. One of the most insidious things about false incarceration is that it’s invisible. We live in a country where people struggle to solve the problems they see every day; the problems you need to go looking for, they need a little help from people like Scott, Lindsey, and Phillips, and from films like this.
Verdict: 4 out of 5
In 2016, more than 166 people were exonerated, having been falsely convicted of crimes ranging from robbery to homicide. The average prison sentence of those exonerated was more than 15 years. By some researchers’ estimates, the United States has a false conviction rate for death row inmates of as high as 4.1%. That’s too damn high. By design, True Conviction doesn’t tackle the scope of these issues. It doesn’t interview experts or investigative reporters. It lets the stories of Scott, Lindsey, Phillips, and their detective work speak for themselves. True Conviction is as entertaining as it is deeply unsettling. This is a film designed to boil blood, and for anyone looking to get an education on America’s justice system – it should be considered required viewing.
True Conviction is having its world premiere at Tribeca Film Festival as part of the documentary competition.