Christopher Scott, Johnnie Lindsey and Steven Phillips are not your typical private investigators. Their cases don’t walk in the door as clients with open checkbooks, but instead arrive through the mail from inmates who have, in most instances, lost decades of their life to specious cases against them. And while the trio has a unique perspective on the investigations they handle, having once been behind bars themselves before being exonerated for their alleged illegal acts, knowing what it’s like to be innocent is an unusual place to start for someone to get to the bottom of who really committed a crime.
This no doubt is what compelled the Bay Area-based Jamie Meltzer to return to Texas — and its penal system — to spend the next five years making “True Conviction,” having just come off a mentally exhausting yet thoroughly engrossing investigation of his own with “Informant.” Focusing on two college kids caught with Molotov cocktails at the 2008 Republican National Convention and the man who tipped off the FBI about their activities (and may or may not have inspired their actions), the film led Meltzer to meet Michael May, then the editor at the Texas Observer, to talk about the case, but soon enough May was telling him about the Texas Exoneree Project, a group of former prisoners in Dallas who started a monthly support group.
Meltzer was fascinated enough by what unfolded before him when he was invited to attend a meeting, but it was when he learned that Scott was starting an offshoot of the program, the House of Renewed Hope, which would actively take up cases of those inside who appeared to have been unjustly prosecuted as they had been. As Meltzer chronicles in “True Conviction,” Scott, Lindsey and Phillips, who draw $80,000 per year from the state for every year they were wrongly imprisoned — in their cases, all 20-plus years apiece — are able to make the pursuit of justice their full-time job, dedicating their time and resources to overturning the convictions of Max Soffar, who, when we meet him, has spent 35 years on Death Row for a triple murder that he confessed to under the influence of amphetamines, and Isaiah Hill, who hasn’t seen the outside since the 1980s after being found guilty of robbing a motel of $250 based on the word of a highly questionable witness.
Thanks to Scott, Lindsey and Phillips’ detective work as well as the men’s own testimony, believing Max and Isaiah deserve their release comes easily, but as a film, one unbelievable event comes after another in “True Conviction” as Meltzer astutely weaves together the present-day investigations with the exonerees’ past, demonstrating both the pain inflicted on the men because of their decades out of society and the many ways in which the system had failed them. Still, the film couldn’t find three more charismatic leads or two more compelling cases to follow and as heartbreaking as it can be at times, “True Conviction” also proves to be exceptionally uplifting, with audiences nearly levitating after the film’s premiere recently at the Tribeca Film Festival. En route to a hometown debut at the Oak Cliff Film Festival in Dallas in early June, Meltzer reflected on the film’s successful bow in New York and the years leading up to it, finding a complex structure to give each person in the film their due and earning their trust in the first place.
The last time we spoke, you were just getting started on this film as you were coming off the road with “Informant,” and it seems like they’re on opposite ends of the spectrum.
All of my films have been a little bit different, and I think part of it is that I teach documentary filmmaking at Stanford, so I study it and mentor students making documentary films, and I’m interested in all the different forms that documentary can take. So when I come off of a project, I look for something that is different. You know you’re going to spend like three years on it, and I want to be engaged on a level of exploring the documentary form, [in terms of] what I can do that might be new for me, and the subject matter [since it] feels like you’re in a rut if you’re doing the same kind of subject, so this one was exciting and different from “Informant,” which had its own challenges.
One thing in common must be a lot of travel to Texas if you’re based in the Bay Area. Did you know how you’d tackle this logistically from your work on “Informant,” which was based in Austin?
This one’s in Dallas, which is not quite what Austin is in a lot of ways, but I [did ask myself], “Oh, do I really want to do another film in Texas?” Through making “Informant,” I became really close with a reporter and editor at the Texas Observer named Michael May, and he told me as I was finishing “Informant,” he’s like, “Listen, I’ve got this story that I’m working on about these Dallas exonerees. They’ve all been wrongfully convicted, and now they have this support group of 30 men and women in Dallas, and they get together and just talk about their experiences.” That sounded interesting to me, but this wrongful conviction type story [has become] really its own genre within documentary now, and I feel like you need a fresh way into these stories, so it was when he told me that they might be starting an investigation team, and they hadn’t yet started it, that really got me. I thought it was an unbelievable story that these guys would take that experience and apply it to trying to free other people.
I was also excited by the form, again, [because] it immediately brought to mind “Thin Blue Line,” which was a film that I loved from when I first got interested in documentary film as an art form, and [like that film] I felt I could infuse the documentary form with elements of the film noir genre, and find a grittier side of Dallas to express. That’s what set me off into the film – there was something to play with [in terms of] documentary form, and there was this rich content [of] these guys starting this team. They have the background that they understand how wrongful convictions happen, but they don’t have the expertise that lawyers and people at the Innocence Project, etc. would have, [which I thought] was fascinating because they’re going to have to face a lot of challenges, and they did. That is dramatic, and that’s what you want to see in a film.
Was it difficult to convey some of those challenges? There is a particularly interesting moment in that regard when you see Steven recoil upon hearing the crimes Max is alleged to have committed and you realize having never actually committed a crime, these men only know of what happens after a conviction, not before.
Everything in the film [stems from] the fact that these guys have these set of experiences, and they’re all different experiences and they’re bringing that to bear, and at the start of the film, there’s maybe even some naivete about how hard this is going to be. Their [own] cases were hard. Steven and Johnnie were in [prison] for 25, 26 years, so it’s not like they didn’t understand how hard it is to get out, but they were super-optimistic and I think they’ve felt like, “We can make this happen.” And I don’t know if they foresaw just how hard, with a case that doesn’t have DNA evidence, that’s going to be to crack. These cases are 40 years old most of the time, and the two that they’re taking on in the film are from 1978 and 1980, so it’s going to be hard to find new evidence when a case is that old, or you need someone to come forward to confess to the crime. That’s what they look for in the Isaiah Hill case, [and there’s the question of] why would someone confess to something that they’ve gotten away with?
In the case of Chris, whose idea it was to have this investigation team, he thought because he didn’t have DNA to exonerate him in his case – he was exonerated because somebody came forward to confess – that encouraged him that this is possible, [thinking] “I can talk to people and relate to people in a certain way, and if I can find the person that we think did this crime, I have a good chance to convince them to come forward and set this guy free.”
Did you actually have your pick of cases to follow or were these the two that came up during your time with the team?
There were a lot of factors. First of all, there’s two main reasons that wrongful convictions happen. The first is mistaken identity, especially cross-racial identification. Many if not most of wrongful convictions are the result of a witness misidentifying someone, and there’s no other evidence, but the jury believes the witness, [which is shown in] Isaiah Hill’s case in this film. But then there’s false confessions, which is a little bit less known, but very much prevalent in wrongful convictions [where] someone takes a plea deal for something that they didn’t do for various reasons and pressure.
I wanted to make those factors clear to audiences through the cases, and I knew that I couldn’t probably take on more than two, but [that] these cases were very different. I like that one [involves] this white guy on death row, and another is an African-American man who’s sentenced to life in prison for stealing $150 at knife point. But it was a learning process for me making the film that the justice system is awfully slow, and in fact, we waited to finish the film until certain things played out in each of those cases. Once we knew what the cases were, we had to have the fortitude and the patience to wait it out, to follow it along, and see it to its logical conclusion. There were a lot of other cases that were compelling, but that just didn’t come to any closure, so they didn’t really find their way into the film.
You’re also quite patient in how you introduce Steven and Johnnie in the film – they’re there with Chris from the start, but this is really well-structured so you’re able to take in their stories individually with time to digest them as their investigations wear on. Was that difficult to come by?
I can’t even overestimate the difficulty of editing this film, and I had a few great editors to work with, who were very good at story, helping me. About two years before we finished the film, I brought an editor on to look at all the footage, and we were were looking for ways to pivot back and forth between the present-day cases that they’re looking into, and going into their past experiences, to make the point in the structure of the film that [these men] are haunted by their past and that’s what’s motivating them [now]. Finding that balance between learning about what has formed these three investigators and following along [their investigations] by the seat of your pants, just filming these interactions that they’re having that you don’t know how they’re going to unfold, was really important to the film and took a long time to get to where it really felt right, where you weren’t overwhelmed with information. We also have to cross cut between [the two cases we had] in order to show momentum, [which] made the structure of the film just so immensely complicated to figure out.
Was there a moment where you thought this might be one kind of film and it turned out to be another?
It’s never [what you think it’s going to be]. There are films, like “Informant,” where I’m finding an interesting way to tell what’s already happened, but there were still some things in “Informant” that I didn’t know and unfolded during the making of it, but largely, it was telling the story of something that happened a year or a few years before. With this, we had no idea what was going to unfold once we engaged with the investigation of these cases. We knew the backstories of the guys, but we didn’t know what was going to unfold and thematically, what I didn’t expect over the course of making the film was that it would really become more about who these guys are as people — what motivates them, and what effect the wrongful conviction had on all these aspects of their lives, on their families, on their mental health, and on their ability to connect with other people.
They’ve created within the larger community of exonerees in Dallas a brotherhood where they can share their experiences, and that brotherhood became the heart and the soul of the film. It gets tested as you saw in the film in a couple different ways, which adds to the drama and to that theme of putting your life back together after going through this trial by fire experience of being wrongfully convicted and having the optimism that you have to have to keep trying to get your case heard by people in order to get out. So the cases that they take on were really important, but [it was important to show] the personalities of the guys, and the message that sends of their resilience and fortitude, in continuing a Sisyphean struggle to reform and change the criminal justice system, which is a big thing for three guys to take on in Texas who don’t have a legal background or even a proper professional background in investigation. What they do have is the strength of their own conviction and knowing how they were convicted wrongfully.
Since these were serious investigations, was the camera being around was ever an issue?
It was. There are two layers to investigations in this context. One is that it’s hard for the guys to find these people [involved in cold cases], and to get them to agree to talk to them, but then you add that layer [that] if it’s going to be in the film, to talk on camera. I would have to go back when I knew they were going to talk to a set of people and talk to them myself to make sure they were okay being filmed and with what we were doing. In most cases, it worked out. They were talking to these guys for the first time and it was all happening on camera — that kind of access was a challenge, but given the scale of all the other challenges, I wouldn’t say it was the biggest challenge.
Probably the biggest challenge of almost any film, but especially with this film, is the trust that you have to get from your subjects. It took maybe two or three years for me to really gain their trust where they were willing to share the pains and struggles that they went through — and that they were going through in the present tense, because a lot of times they wanted to shield that from me — but of course I made the case [because] you need to see the complexities of their lives to understand the impact of what they went through, and how it has these ripple effects. It’s not just them. It’s not the pain just that they went through; it affects all the people around them, and their children, and their grandchildren.
What was the premiere at Tribeca like for you?
I love it because in New York, you’re just getting these great audiences that seem to be really passionate about the festival and about the film and it’s exciting to be at this point where I just finished editing the film literally three weeks ago, so it’s a bit of a whirlwind in the sense that you just finished that, and then now you’re overwhelmed with everything that’s happened at the festival. It’s little bit hard to process, but it’s certainly exciting. Even in the first [screening], I brought the guys up at the Q&A, and it was just so emotional. You could just see it on people’s faces and in the questions that they asked [after the screening] that they were really transformed and surprised by who these men are. I can’t overemphasize how impactful that was for me because to see them honored with a standing ovation was really moving to me that something that I produced in collaboration with them allowed people to see into their hearts, into their souls, and to connect with them in such a great way.