‘True Conviction’ Doc Shows A New Kind Of Freedom Fighters

With approximately 2 million people behind bars, the U.S. imprisons more of its own citizens than any country in the world. Many of these prisoners were wrongfully convicted—as many as 2 percent to 5 percent, according to The Innocence Project. A recent study by the National Academy of Science suggests that as many as one in 25 death row inmates are actually innocent.

Assuming a wrongful conviction rate of just 1 percent, at least 20,000 innocent prisoners are currently behind bars.

Jamie Meltzer’s documentary True Conviction, which had its world premiere last night at the Tribeca Film Festival, tells the story of three of those prisoners. Christopher Scott, Jonnie Lindsey and Steven Phillips served decades of time between them. They each received financial settlements from the State of Texas after their convictions were overturned. Pooling their resources and drawing inspiration from their own horrendous experiences, they came together to help other innocent prisoners reclaim their freedom by uncovering DNA evidence or new information.

The documentary was a five year journey for Meltzer, who attended a 2012 meeting of
“exonerees” in Dallas. “They had all served between 10 and 15 years in prison, and gathered to share their emotions and struggles,” he recalls. “I was so moved by the resilience and strength they displayed it was fascinating and compelling and had all sorts of lessons in it for people who haven’t been through this experience. There’s so much we can learn from them.”

There is no shortage of clients for these three Dallas-based detectives, who receive numerous letters from prisoners. If a letter touches them they arrange a meeting with the inmate and ask their version of events including descriptions of other people involved in the crime as well as the actions of police officers and even jury members who may have played a part in a wrongful conviction.

The film focuses on two cases: Max Soffel, a white Death Row inmate of 35 years who was forced into a triple murder confession in Houston when he was a young man, and Isaiah Hill, a black man sentenced to life in prison on aggravated assault charges after refusing a plea bargain. The “dream team” travels hundreds of miles and countless hours digging up fresh evidence to help their incarcerated clients.

Hill, who was jailed for over 20 years after being charged for an assault that occurred as part of a $150 motel robbery, begs the agency to help him get out. “They’ve raped me in here,” he says, breaking down in tears. “They’ve beaten me in here.” Without spoiling the end, they do take on his case as well as Soffel’s. Both situations quickly escalate with results that are by turns both inspiring and troubling—revealing the deep flaws in America’s criminal justice system at every level. As urgent as the work of the “Dream Team” may be, it’s impossible to right all the wrongs, make up for lost time, or fully undo the damage done.

“So many movies deal with the larger systemic issues of criminal justice and race,” says the director. “I hope our movie addresses them in a different way, while still bringing to the light the many problems we have with the justice system—in particular with wrongful convictions. Even more than that, I hope that audiences get to know these three guys through this movie and see the passion, strength and resilience they bring to their endeavors after spending years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit. People assume they would be devastated after experiencing all they have, but these guys are committed to turning that tragedy into something powerful and transformative.”

Additional Tribeca Film Festival Screenings

Public Screening #2: Saturday, April 22nd at 3:45pm (Cinépolis Chelsea 2)

Public Screening #3: Sunday, April 23rd at 6:30pm (Regal Battery Park 11-5)

Public Screening #4: Tuesday, April 25th at 6:15pm (Regal Battery Park 11-1)

P&I Screening #2: Wednesday, April 26th at 2:45pm (Cinépolis Chelsea 4)

Public Screening #5: Sunday, April 30th at 8:45pm (Regal Battery Park 11-3)

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