Texas Documentary 'True Conviction' features 3 exonerees Men travel the state helping to investigate other inmates' claims of innocence

By Jennifer Emily

The Dallas Morning News

DALLAS (AP) - Blinking neon lights cast luster across the faces of three men as they clamber onto a Ferris wheel at the State Fair of Texas.

"It's all about the view," one says as they rise and Dallas and its people below fall away.

The Dallas Morning News reports "True Conviction," a new documentary, tells the story of three Dallas County exonerees who now search for others still locked up in Texas prisons for crimes they did not commit.

The film captures their approach to their investigations, and their lives in the wake of wrongful conviction: Perspective is everything.

The men - Christopher Scott, Steven Phillips and Johnnie Lindsey - served nearly 65 years combined for crimes they didn't commit. Scott for capital murder. Phillips in a string of sex crimes by a man whose name authorities knew all along. Lindsey for a rape committed by another man.

After five years of filming, "True Conviction," by filmmaker Jamie Meltzer, officially debuts later this month at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. The movie was shown recently in Dallas as a fundraiser for the nonprofit House of Renewed Hope, which Scott founded as the umbrella organization for their investigations. Scott rented a theater at Alamo Drafthouse in the Cedars to give family and friends a sneak peek of the film.

"We want the world to see that people are wrongly convicted," Phillips said. "We want them to know there are innocent people still in prison."

Their viewpoint is vital when combing through hundreds of inmate letters proclaiming innocence. Who is most likely innocent and how do you determine the truth? Sometimes the missives don't provide enough information. Sometimes they indicate guilt. But many remind Scott, Phillips and Lindsey of how they felt going to sleep each night in prison, knowing they were innocent.

The exonerees' experiences are why the people of small towns in Texas open their doors and offer cookies and lemonade. It's why a prosecutor who believes in the guilt of a man the trio is looking into sits down for the inevitable confrontational interview. It's why they travel around the state searching for a witness or an expert to explain the evidence.

It's why they do what they do.

Scott, a former Dallas Morning News Texan of the Year, formed House of Renewed Hope to bring the trio's unique outlook to possible claims of innocence. He wants to give others the gift he received: "a second chance at life."

As larger-than-life images of themselves filled the screen, all three men sat in the front row, eyes glued to the screen, chins in their hands.

In the film, Scott returns to prison to meet with a man he believes might be innocent. The man, dressed in prison whites, scrunches his face and sobs as Scott talks to him.

"It'll be OK," Scott tells him, his voice calm and clear. "We here to try to help you."

He looks down, clearly moved by the man sitting on the other side of the glass in the prison visitation room.

The Dallas theater viewing was the first time the three had seen a fully edited version of the film. Just like the audience, they couldn't help but wipe away tears with their fingertips.

More than a detective agency, the men are brothers within a larger brotherhood of more than 30 Dallas County exonerees.

They've long had the ear of the Dallas County district attorney's office because of its role in helping clear their names. Its tiny but busy conviction integrity unit has been lauded nationwide, but exonerations have slowed and it no longer has a supervisor.

District Attorney Faith Johnson, a Republican who took office in January, has said it is a priority but the position to head the unit remains open. Wrongful convictions are becoming a battleground leading up to the 2018 election. John Creuzot, who is seeking the office as a Democrat, has detailed plans to expand the unit in size and scope.

The movie isn't just about the three men's efforts to free those they believe were wrongly convicted. The camera also captures the men as they wrestle with the reverberations of their years behind bars. Lost chances for love. Their kids growing up without dads. The pain of proclaiming your innocence when few, if any, believe you.

Texas compensates those wrongly convicted with $80,000 for each year behind bars. But there's so much that money doesn't buy. It doesn't mend relationships with those left behind. It can't heal what's broken.

They've found a place in the world together. Scott heads the group and is the epitome of health - he doesn't eat vegetables but he works out five times a week. He's raising his toddler grandson who shares his name. Lindsey lost his chance for a family but finds peace in quiet moments. Phillips internalizes so much and surrounds himself constantly with people except when he fishes or works in his yard.

Phillips' and Scott's bond began right after Scott's release. Scott had nowhere to go and Phillips paid to rent an apartment and loaned him money.

One thing they didn't lose in prison is hope that one day the truth would be known.

The dream of someone who truly listens and a chance at freedom is what the men bring to the inmates whose cases they work.

Assisting "the guys," as she calls them, is attorney Michelle Moore. Her work freed Scott and Lindsey, now 46 and 64, nine years ago. She tried to free Phillips, now 59, but she couldn't quite get there and the Innocence Project in New York won his freedom the following year.

Now, Moore advises them pro bono about the law as they follow leads. She said some people, who wouldn't talk if a lawyer or investigator knocked on their door, chat with Scott, Phillips and Lindsey.

Moore is a constant in their lives and not just as an attorney. A pal when needed. A mom when required. And always a fan.

To the exonerees of Dallas County, said Scott, Moore is "one of our main heroes." And they have many, including a prosecutor and investigator from the DA's office who have worked on exonerations, Cynthia Garza and Jim Hammond, who watched the film from the back row. Two Dallas County felony court judges, Hector Garza (husband of the prosecutor) and Brandon Birmingham, attended as well.

Despite seeing so much of the lives firsthand, Moore's eyes filled with tears as their stories unfolded on the screen.

"It's all the stuff we know," she said. "But to watch it, to hear the men in prison, to see the guys struggle. I can see them fighting tears."

After the Dallas screening, Scott headed home to look at the files from their current case. The movie doesn't mean their work is over. They'll head to New York for five screenings of the film and then head back to Dallas County, where their mailbox overflows with envelopes from Texas inmates asking for help.

"We're going to keep doing what we're doing," said Lindsey.

How else, the guys ask, would they keep hope alive?

Published: Mon, Apr 17, 2017


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