After being sentenced to life in prison for murder, Kenneth Waters asked his sister Betty Anne—a waitress at an Irish pub with only a GED—to help him prove his innocence.
Despite knowing that his faith in her was greater than the faith she had in herself, Betty Anne Waters enrolled in community college and undertook a 12-year process to free her brother and restore her faith in the justice system.
Waters recounted her amazing story—from the day she learned of the brutal murder of a family friend to the day her brother walked out of prison—for a rapt audience at the 2010 Tresolini Lecture in Law on Tuesday night. Her journey through this country’s legal system is currently playing out in movie theaters across the country in the film Conviction, starring Hilary Swank as Waters.
“What we heard was the story of a woman who faced seemingly insurmountable odds, but who responded to the challenge with perseverance, passion, and promise,” says Brian Pinaire, associate professor of political science and organizer of the annual Tresolini Lecture.
“Betty Anne Waters indicated to an audience of over 400 people what the power of love and the pursuit of justice can accomplish, even for ‘ordinary’ Americans. You can't get more authentic than Betty Anne and we were proud to see her deliver the 2010 Tresolini Lecture with the kind of spirit that would have made Professor Tresolini very proud."
Keeping her promise
In 1980, Katharina Brow was murdered in her home in the small, rural town of Ayer, Mass. Kenneth Waters was questioned by the police after the murder. He had been working all night at a diner and appeared in court the next morning, giving him what his family believed was a perfect alibi. But, two and a half years later, Kenneth was arrested for Brow’s murder and later convicted and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
“When the verdict came back guilty, we were shocked,” said Waters, who added that her family had to exhaust their financial resources to defend Kenneth. “I knew the evidence. I knew my brother.”
After Kenneth attempted suicide, Waters made him a heartfelt promise. She would enroll in community college, then in law school in order to free him. She spent 12 years in school, watched her marriage fall apart, and toted books to her children’s sporting events—all in the hopes of keeping her promise.
“I just kept putting one foot in front of the other. I just look at every hurdle as one hurdle, not as two,” she said.
Waters ultimately wrote a school paper to better understand DNA, and then searched relentlessly for missing DNA. She enlisted the help of law school friends, and contacted Barry Scheck (also a former Tresolini lecturer) at the Innocence Project, an organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing.
Her determination uncovered a box of evidence that contained DNA that proved Kenneth’s innocence. In 2001, after more than 18 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, Kenneth was exonerated.
Waters blames police misconduct, specifically an overzealous young police officer eager to earn her stripes, and a government afraid to admit wrong.
“I learned about the justice system,” Waters said. “I went from not liking it to really loving it.”
'My brother died free and innocent'
Today, Waters is modest about her efforts and unaffected by her fame. She continues to help the Innocence Project and occasionally takes on cases for the New England Innocence Project. But most of Waters’ time is spent back at Aidan’s Irish Pub in Bristol, R.I., where she continues to work “to pay the bills.” Sadly, Kenneth died from a fall six months after his release.
“The good news is, my brother died free and innocent. He didn’t die in prison, but at home with his friends and family,” she said. “I had nightmares he’d die in prison, but dreams he’d come home in a white limo. He came home in a limo.”
At the end of the evening a woman in the audience stood and asked one final question: “Are you still angry?” Waters paused for a moment and said that she was not angry, but added with a smile, “I still want to get even.”
The Rocco J. Tresolini Lectureship in Law was established in 1978, in memory of one of Lehigh’s most distinguished teachers and scholars, Rocco Tresolini (1920-1967). The endowed lectureship was made possible by the generosity of Lehigh’s Class of 1961, and other alumni and friends of the university.
Waters joins a long list of legal luminaries who have delivered the Tresolini Lecture at Lehigh, including former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, former Vietnam War-era governmental strategic analyst Daniel Ellsberg, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, U.S. Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr., attorney David Boies, and Scheck.