With 166 people exonerated, 2016 set the record for Americans wrongly convicted of crimes that they did not commit.
Mission-based filmmaker Jamie Meltzer masterfully puts three human faces to this statistic. Over the course of five years, Meltzer followed a trio of innocent ex cons on an often painful but liberating journey to reclaim their lives, capturing their triumphs and pitfalls in his illuminating documentary, True Conviction.
Christopher Scott, Johnnie Lindsey and Steven Phillips have each have wrongfully spent decades behind bars in Texas jails.
Scott, a young black father, spent 13 years in prison after police pinned a murder on him; Lindsey, who is also black, was told that a white woman’s rape accusation was enough to put him behind bars for 28 years; and Phillips, a white man, was exonerated after being convicted for a series of sex crimes when DNA evidence proved his innocence 24 years later.
“It’s a sad film – very much a reflection of the criminal justice system and its deep flaws and structural racism,” said Meltzer. “All the problems in the criminal justice system come out organically through this story.”
Though they always maintained their innocence, their exoneration only came in exchange for someone else’s confession or new evidence that was produced in their cases. Awarded $80,000 for each year they were incarcerated and knowing that there are many more stories like theirs in the deeply flawed Texas prison system, they embark on a cathartic mission to free others from false imprisonment.
Run out of a BBQ joint in Dallas, the three launch a grassroots investigative agency that takes on select cases based on the letters of prisoners they receive.
Scott, the film’s leading man, diligently sifts through stacks of letters in an almost obsessive quest for the truth. Scott’s conviction was a result of racial profiling, and the film opens with shots that flash back to his childhood home. Though plagued by poverty, Scott states that his mother “raised him right.”
Charming, noble and honest – Scott’s face literally hides no emotion. His nostrils flare as desperate inmates speak to him of the injustices committed against them and as guilty free men refuse to come clean about lies that have festered for decades and have irreversibly altered lives.
“When I go through these letters, I have to see my case in his case,” Scott tells Meltzer. “If I feel …his pain,that’ll be the letter that I choose to work on.”
One of those letters is a plea from Max Alexander Soffar, who has been on death row for 35 years for a gruesome triple homicide in a bowling alley.
Soffar’s story doesn’t add up, and though Philips initially has his doubts about him, Scott follows his instincts and takes on Soffar’s case, even though the evidence is clearly stacked against him. Soffar confessed to the murders decades earlier, albeit under questionable circumstances. In another case taken on by the team, a man with a mental disability spent 40 years behind bars after being framed for a robbery.
As the trio digs up old evidence, interviews jurors, judges and officers involved in long expired cases, and work tirelessly to build new ones, viewers are privy to a glimpse of life after prison and the sometimes irreparable damage that the men’s convictions have caused on their own psyches and families.
To the anguish of his friends, Phillips’ coping mechanism, cocaine, landed him behind bars again during the filming of the documentary. Scott’s son is convicted of an aggravated robbery and sentenced for almost a decade, leaving Scott to care for his infant grandson. The film is marked by both relatable and unimaginable heartbreaks.
While their personal struggles may be life-sentences, the film portrays the unfaltering power of hope – which as Scott explains, is the only thing that keeps innocent men alive behind bars. And in a cruel twist of fate, it is sometimes Scott himself who takes that hope away from the very prisoners he aims to save when he and his team, even with rock solid evidence, are unable to achieve a true conviction.
“True Conviction” screens as part of the San Francisco Documentary Film Festival on Saturday, June 3, at 7:15 p.m. at the Roxie Theater at 3117 16th St. More information plus tickets, vouchers and passes to all screenings are available here.