Christopher Scott, Johnnie Lindsey, and Steven Phillips gave years of their lives to the state of Texas and the penitentiary. After decades of incarceration, the three men were exonerated and thrust back into the world that had turned its back on them. And yet, the years lost have not deterred these men from reaching out to help others.
In Jamie Meltzer’s documentary “True Conviction,” we watch as these three men seek justice for other wrongfully convicted people, reading thousands of letters, visiting prisons, and speaking with prosecutors and detectives who have intricate knowledge of these cases. While Melzer’s lens hones in on our eroded judicial system, he also makes sure to shine a light on the men themselves who despite losing so much, have come so far.
During the Tribeca Film Festival, I got the opportunity to sit down with director Meltzer and wrongful conviction detectives, Christopher Scott, Johnnie Lindsey and Steven Phillips to chat about the film, their personal stories, and what they hope for the future.
Aramide Tinubu: Jamie, how were you introduced to Chris, Steven and Johnnie, and what made you decide to pursue this project?
Jamie Meltzer: I have a friend who is a journalist in Texas, and there were more than thirty exonerees at that time, it was 2012. He told me about these guys in Dallas who had a support group, and I thought that was fascinating. He also told me this idea that a couple of them had to start an investigation team to look into cases of wrongful convictions. I just thought that was such a dramatic and inspirational idea. I knew that it would be fraught with challenges, and I just thought it would make a great documentary. So, I went down to Dallas and sat in one of the support group meetings. Within five minutes, I was in tears. It was a lot to take in. But, the thing that convinced me that there was a film there was the experiences and feelings that they shared, and you immediately saw strength in them; a resilience that was just really surprising. I would think I would be destroyed by this kind of experience, but they’re not. They do not want what happened to them to happen to someone else, and they are just so driven by that.
AT: When Jamie approached you all about this project, what made you decide that you wanted to do it as a collective group?
Christopher Scott: We’re trying to bring as much awareness as possible to wrongful conviction, and this was a way to do it and to do it. We knew we could go interview people, but Jamie wanted to capture the personal aspects. He didn’t want it to be all about prison. When I saw that he wanted to explore all avenues of the way we were wrongfully convicted, that’s when I was like this is a no-brainer, this is what the world needs to see.
AT: As a filmmaker what was the most daunting aspect of this project for you Jamie?
JM: There were so many difficult aspects of making this film. In production, it was how to follow all of the different threads and all of the different cases. We feature two in the film, but we filmed maybe five or six. We didn’t know if one would result in an exoneration or something dramatic would happen. Then the other thing was I knew that we would have to tell the stories of the detectives, and how to balance that. That was more of an editorial challenge of structuring and editing the film. So the biggest challenge was just getting my head around how to tell this story.
AT: You really give the audience the full spectrum of these men’s full humanity. How did you decide what aspects of their personal lives you would put in the film?
JM: The most difficult and emotional journey as a filmmaker is really gaining the trust of your subjects. They don’t know what the film is going to look like. I know that I’m going to do their stories justice and be respectful, but how would they know that? In this case, it really took years. It took maybe three years of working with them. I spent a lot of time with them to build up that trust, where they felt like they could really let me in. They are very positive and resilient, and they want to affect change, but they are haunted by their experiences, how could they not be? They present themselves as very confident, and they are but there are understandable cracks, and I have to explore that. How could you trust anyone after this, even your family? It turns everyone away from you in a really scary way. I’m really grateful that they did let me in, and it really paid off because they are getting a lot of love now taking [the film] around and that’s really beautiful to see.
AT: How do you all find the strength to return to these prisons and look at all these cases that are embedded within a system that failed you?
Steven Phillips: Every time I talk to one of these guys or talk to their families or read their letters, it always strikes me that I was there.
CS: Like Steven said we know how it feels to be there. That gives us just that much more passion, encouragement, and motivation to walk through those prison doors again. I get to leave after I’m finished speaking with whomever I’m talking to. I don’t have to stay behind. The same way I walked in, I can walk back out. Hearing that cling sound of the sliding door as it bangs brings back those memories, but it also reminds you why you’re there, and that’s to help people.
Johnnie Lindsey: I’ve seen so much hardship in prison because I’ve spent 26-years there. I even knew a guy that was on death row, and I witnessed him leaving to be put to death. After the lethal injection there is no more life, no more hope there is nothing. Seeing so many guys who have fallen by the waste side, good people and decent guys who got caught up in the system life myself, it makes me forget about my situation.
AT: How long did it take to for the entire film to be completed?
JM: I met the guys for the first time in February 2012, and now we are in 2017, and I just finished editing maybe three weeks ago.
JM: It was a five-year journey. In the first three years, there is a lot of material in the film from those years, but I’d say the strongest most transformative stuff really did come from the last two years, Then the nature of these cases is that nothing happens for a long time. Like Isaiah Hill, he’s just someone who fell through the cracks essentially, nobody cared enough to advocate for this man.
AT: In the film, Jamie reenacts your cases using graphics to illustrate how you got caught up in the system Was that extremely painful to revisit?
CS: For me, it was because seeing who I am now from where I was, when I reflect, I tear up every time. When I was released, and the first person I go hug is my mom, that was a touching scene for me, and it brought out all of the emotions, and it really made me feel like this film was worth the five years we put in. It captured us at our weakness moment and when we were at the top of our game.
JL: Once I got out, and once I wiped my eyes it was time to get up and do something because the same situation you were in, somebody is in that same situation. That humanizes you. The system doesn’t care; the general public doesn’t care; somebody has to care. I tell Chris and Steven all the time, “If I had that one something that I could cling onto and believe in …” Like the letters that we get, those guys believe in us. We can’t help all of them, but we try to help as many as we can. They believe in us because we are not getting paid, we make no promises; we are doing this on the sheer blood and guts of ourselves. That’s what makes it solid.
AT: I know that you all get thousands of letters, so how do you know which cases to take on?
SP: We bring our experiences to the letters and something in a letter is going to strike one of us or not. If it doesn’t then, it’s not going to make the cut, but if it does, if something in that letter strikes one of us as being authentic and genuine and we feel like we know where that guy is at, then we’re going to look a little bit closer at that letter.
CS: It’s got to have mirrors to it. If it doesn’t have mirrors to it, then I hate to say it, but there is nothing that we can do for you. Our system is that we get the letters out of the PO Box, issue them out and come together to see which ones are the strongest cases.
JL: Personally when I read my letters, I’m looking for myself in these letters, if a guy writes a letter and I can’t feel him.., a pair of lips will say anything, and just like a pair of lips will say anything a hand will write anything. But I know how I felt, and I know the things I said in my letters, so those are the things that I look for. We have been bullshitted so much to where I can listen to a guy, and at a certain point I can cut him off because I know he’s bullshitting. He just has to make me feel it. Once I do that I go to Chris and Steven and say I think there is something here. The same things that I’ll feel, they’ll feel it, or I might have missed something because we all make mistakes.
CS: Sometimes we agree to disagree. However, the majority of the time if we don’t feel it, we just don’t feel it. It’s just that plain and simple. Why waste time on a case that you feel has no merits? Out of a thousand cases, maybe one or two will have merits to it. It’s like finding a needle in a haystack. You have to find that one that has everything you need to get a conviction overturned. If it’s not there, it’s just not there.
SP: These guys know what it takes to have a case overturned. You have to have new evidence that is strong enough to convince a jury not to convict and that is a real high bar, but it happens, and that’s what we’re looking for.
JL: The Criminal Court of Appeals just made our job tougher because they will not grant an exoneration if it is not proven that an individual is actually innocent.
AT: So you always have to have DNA?
JL: Well DNA is one of the courses, but there was no DNA in Chris’ case, so the only way he was proven innocent was the real perpetrator coming forward.
CS: Not only coming forward he has to give them enough detail in his confession where the only person who would know would have been at the scene of the crime. Then both parties have to pass a polygraph test. They’ve raised the bar so high but, that doesn’t deter us from doing what we set out to do.
AT: What’s going on in Texas, why are all of these people being wrongfully convicted?
SP: The difference is the system is really a machine. It doesn’t care if a guy is saying, “I’m not guilty.” Once you get into the machine, you’re with a public defender who doesn’t have time or isn’t interested. They’ve heard, “I’m not guilty” often enough, so they’re not really pursuing that It chews people up and spits them out without really investigating or determining the truth.
JL: It’s racist.
CS: It’s very racist. It’s a racial disadvantage for African American men in court systems. Our court system is very flawed, and a lot of people don’t want to put it on race because they try to sugar coat it, but I’m not the type of guy to sugar coat things. It’s racial bias towards African American men. If I have a capital murder case, and another guy has a capital murder case, but he doesn’t come from my ethnic background, they will give him 35 years or involuntary manslaughter. But, for me, it’s going to stick. They gave me a one million dollar bond, they know I’m not going to make bond, so they go, “Well we got him.” They know I have no choice but to go to court and once you’re in court you’re railroaded because everything in the court is white. You tell me what African American male that is painted as a killer or a rapist or a robber is going to win a case when it’s that much against him when he first walks into the courthouse? Now that we have a President like Donald Trump, and [Jeff] Sessions and all of those people, it may be even worse in years to come.
JL: The system is set up to where, especially for minorities, we are so busy in this world hustling, bustling, working and trying to make ends meet. We go and elect these people and then go about our business. We don’t have time to focus on these people and what they are doing because you’re too busy trying to get your kids through school and keep a roof over your head. So they’ve got you steady going, and they are over there constantly arresting us, locking us up and throwing away the key. The police and judicial system are doing their thing with whomever they want; however they want and however long they want. The same system I’m speaking of goes on in prison. Just every day surviving, you can’t even stop and litigate your case. They even make access to the law library so hard that when you finally get up there, all of the laws are outdated. What you see in that documentary “13th” that’s what we stand for, we are an extension to that documentary.
JM: It’s not in the film, but we interviewed Craig Watkins who was the first African-American DA in Dallas. He started the Conviction Integrity Unit. He’s not in office now, but he freed something like 35 people when he was, He said, “We’re going to look into these cases and test the DNA.” He was a transformational figure. That happened in Dallas first among the whole nation. There was no one else doing that. Secondly the compensation in Texas, they get $80,000 a year for every year they were incarcerated. That doesn’t give them back those years, but it allows them to do something like this. Otherwise, what are they going to do? They can’t get jobs. Their record gets expunged but, you have this huge gap. I guess what I am trying to say is that Texas has been among the worst. But, I think it’s also encouraging that where some of the worst things are happening, the most executions, for instance, there is also this ray of hope coming out with these guys and with the Conviction Integrity Unit over the last fifteen years. That’s where change started, and now you see these units popping up all over the country. Some places they threw out the DNA, so we came across some cases in Houston where they didn’t save the DNA like they did in Dallas, so there are guys in prison in Texas that will never get out; there is no way to get them out. It’s much harder once you are in to prove your innocence. It’s not a reasonable doubt anymore. We all know the issues that lead to plea bargains and people ending up in prison for years rather than risk what these guys got. They all went to trial, and they got sentenced to life.
AT: I still can’t believe that Chris was on trial for Capital Murder and it lasted only one day.
JM: It’s appalling, and there was no evidence. There is nothing that linked him to the crime. There was the eyewitness misidentification, and that’s the thing especially across racial lines that is the worst offender.
AT: What is your favorite moment in the film? My favorite is Chris and his hot dog bun.
JM: That’s interesting that you say that because there was a bit of time when that wasn’t in the film. I was like, “What was I thinking?” Chris and I were hanging out one day waiting for someone to call on a case, and we had nothing to do for eight hours. So, Chris starts getting together all of this stuff to make this chili dog which he kept saying is his favorite meal of all time. The love, care, and passion he had about this hot dog, and his Lays potato chips. He was contrasting that against what he got in prison. So that moment happens very early in the film, and you connect with this guy. There are so many dark things in the film, and those were intense to film and really emotional. It’s hard not to be emotional when you’re there, but it was nice to have those moments of levity.
AT: What are you most proud of about this film?
SP: I’m most proud of the guys, I knew these guys since they got out. We all got out within a year of each other. It was pretty amazing to see them come out of that courtroom.
CS: Just seeing others get out of prison, that’s what makes it all right for me.
JL: They couldn’t pay me enough money to get back the life I lost when I was incarcerated. But, the joy and the tears of freedom, that is the biggest paycheck I could get. I feel like we all feel that way and we can’t ask for anything better than that. That’s what keeps us going.
AT: Thank you all very much.
“True Conviction” premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on Thursday, April 20, 2017. It will air on PBS later this year.
Aramide A Tinubu has her Master’s in Film Studies from Columbia University. She wrote her thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger, and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami