'True Conviction': Film Review | Tribeca 2017

Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival
A workmanlike documentary on a vital subject.

Jamie Meltzer's doc is a portrait of a detective agency in Dallas that was started by three ex-convicts aiming to free innocent people behind bars.

The Sisyphean struggle to turn far too many wrongs in the Texas judicial system into rights is the noble subject of True Conviction, a straightforward, right-minded documentary blessed by the central presence of a dogged and charismatic champion of justice. Stylistically old-school in the traditional PBS manner, Jamie Meltzer's single-track film focuses on the efforts of three men who, after wrongful convictions and eventual exoneration, have dedicated themselves to helping other prisoners who may not deserve to be behind bars. After its Tribeca debut and PBS broadcast, the film will no doubt serve its purpose of reigniting attention on certain defects of the legal system, especially in regard to what critics describe as the railroading of minority defendants on flimsy evidence.

Leading the "freedom fighters" is the imposing, muscle-bound, even-tempered Christopher Scott, who spent 13 years in prison on a murder rap and would likely have remained in for life had the actual killer not finally confessed in 2009. Eventually joined by two older men — Johnnie Lindsey, who is also black, and Steven Phillips, who's white, both of whom spent twice as long in the slammer as their colleague — Scott dedicates himself to the righteous task of trying to help the hopeless, those who claim to be innocent but have nonetheless been shoved out of sight and mind by the legal system.

Trying to exonerate lower-class men without money or influence is a tough job without many volunteers, which is where the vastly empathetic and sympathetic Scott comes in. Not that he's gullible, not at all. But having been through it himself, he's open to the possibility that any of the prisoners he meets who claim innocence might, in fact, be telling the truth. This puts the viewer quite firmly in the shoes of their interrogator as he listens to their woeful stories, tries to give them hope but must honestly assess their chances of making a good case for a reversal of their conviction.

All these prisoners claim innocence and have their grievances, of course, and it's very difficult for a viewer exposed only to tiny snippets of their sob stories to judge who might have a legitimate case that could turn justice in their favor. As Scott points out, the more time that's passed, the longer is the shot at discovering favorable new evidence, finding a new witness or someone else coming forward to admit guilt. As candidates for representation by Scott and his colleagues come and go, one wishes that Meltzer had prompted Scott to address the question of whether, after years of listening to prisoners claim their innocence to him, he's developed private ways to sometimes distinguish between the liars and the truly wronged.

Unexpected drama asserts itself when one of Scott's colleagues messes up and lands back in the joint and, far more so, when Scott is able to confront the man actually responsible for the killing that derailed his life. You don't see something like this every day.

That said, the job Scott has taken on requires great patience and an extreme tolerance for drudgery, and it would be negligent not to admit that this aspect of his job somewhat infects the film, which obligingly portrays the laboriousness of the process to which the man has righteously dedicated himself. Nor is the film blessed with settings and backdrops of any visual interest; to the contrary, scene after scene takes place in banal and brightly lit offices, motels, restaurants and prisoner/visitor conversation booths. Although Scott's conscientiousness seems to be of the highest order, even he admits, at one discouraging point, that "I really don't know what good I am doing here."

But there are compensating encouragements, attested to by a climactic statistic clocking 166 Texas prisoner exonerations in 2016. Scott's self-appointed job of achieving proper justice is one that's never-ending, so he must settle for the satisfaction of freeing as many innocent people as he can.

Venue: Tribeca Film Festival

Production: Independent Lens, PBS

With: Christopher Scott, Johnnie Lindsey, Steven Phillips

Director: Jamie Meltzer

Producers: David Alvarado, Kate McLean, Michael May

Executive producers: Adam Spielberg, Dan Cogan, Seth Gordon, Jenny Raskin, Lois Vossen, Sally Jo Fifer

Director of photography: David Alvarado

Editor: Jeff Gilbert

Music: Joshua Abrams

85 minutes