Steven Phillips, Christopher Scott and Johnnie Lindsey in "True Conviction"
I’ve seen my share of prison -themed films and documentaries, but none quite like Jamie Meltzer’s “True Conviction.” In our mangled and corrupted criminal justice and prison systems, once people are deemed guilty, they are ushered away and locked behind steel walls and electric gates; kept separate from society and the rest of humanity. Depending on the level of their crime, they might never be seen or heard from again. Certainly, their lives become distant memories to those of us who roam around free in the outside world. However, cracks and crevices have eroded our judicial system, and more than one innocent person has given their life for a crime that he or she did not commit. Meltzer’s “True Conviction” shines a light on three of these men.
At Hickory House Barbecue in Dallas, Texas, we meet three men who have given many years of their lives to the system, only to be exonerated in the end. Christopher Scott is a hulking man with a gentle spirit, steadfast in his determination to get to the facts. Steven Phillips is quiet and watchful, a pillar for the men he’s helped in the past. Johnnie Lindsey rounds out the trio as its calm and wise force. He's a man who uses meditation practices and fun new gadgets to find his inner peace. These men, bonded by pain and injustice, have formed a detective agency in an effort to help free innocent people still locked away behind bars.
Out of piles and piles of letters and documentation the men receive from incarcerated inmates proclaiming their innocence, Chris, Steven, and Johnnie choose the cases that strike a cord within them. From there, they do their best to dig through the evidence, looking to find something to validate the prisoner’s claims. In “True Conviction” we meet two of these incarcerated men. Isaiah Hill who was convicted of a non-violent robbery amounting in $250 back the early ‘80s. He's been in prison ever since. We also meet Max Soffar who has been on Texas’ Death Row for the past thirty-five years; convicted of murdering three people in cold blood at a bowling alley in 1980. Both men have maintained their innocence since the beginning of their prison terms, and both men have a history of mental illness. Though our detectives - Chris, Steven, and Johnnie - take their cases, we soon learn that hope can be a very dangerous thing.
The camaraderie and brotherhood among these men as they try to dissect these cases is captivating to watch. However, it is their individual personal stories that elevate the film. Returning to any sense of normalcy after being imprisoned for an extended period must be daunting, to say the least. From news clippings of the crimes they were accused of committing, to the day of their exoneration, none of them has had an easy path in life. Chris, Steven, and Johnnie are free now but haunted by the years spent on the inside. Though he’s been out for several years, Chris, for example, still marvels at the fluffy hot dog bun he eats that doesn’t crumble once he opens it up.
In spite of the work that these men are doing, their lives aren’t perfect, and what makes the film so gripping is the fact that Meltzer refuses to shy away from that fact. It’s especially poignant that he is able to do so without a lens of judgment.
What amazed me most about this film was Chris, Steve and Johnnie’s ability to open their hearts to other people, despite the fact that they have been betrayed in the worst ways. It has to take an immense amount of strength to read these letters and walk in and out of the same institutions that tried to claim their lives. From distraught inmates to incompetent prosecutors and detectives, many aspects of the film weighed very heavy on my heart. And yet, the good work of these men has not been in vain. In 2016 alone, 166 people were exonerated across the country; 32 of those people were from Dallas County.
“True Conviction” is powerful, devastating and remarkable. It’s a film about the true injustices in our judicial system and the lack of compassion that we have for one another that continues to permeate this reality. However, in the face of all of this wrongdoing, Johnnie Lindsey, Christopher Scott, and Steven Phillips find joy in the lives that they have been able to reclaim. Things aren’t picture perfect or even where they might have been had they not been wrongfully convicted. And yet, they choose to thrive and extend their hands to others who have lost all hope.
“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