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 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.
Continue reading at Shadow and Act.