For more than three years, Betty Anne Waters had watched helplessly as her older brother Kenny languished in a Massachusetts prison. Convicted in 1983 of first-degree murder, Kenny was serving a life sentence for a crime that his sister was convinced he hadn't committed. At first Betty Anne had put her faith in the appeals process. But as each motion was denied, and the money to pay the lawyers ran out, she became desperate. "Nothing seemed to be working," says Betty Anne, 46. "What were we going to do?"

The answer was both simple and startling. In 1986 Betty Anne, a homemaker who had dropped out of school in the 11th grade, decided to become a lawyer and fight for her brother's freedom on her own. On March 15 her efforts came to fruition when, after more than 18 years behind bars, Kenny walked out of a Cambridge, Mass., court a free man, his sister at his side. "This is the second coming of Erin Brockovich," defense attorney Barry Scheck, who helped on the case in the latter stages, says of Betty Anne. "She's a remarkable person."

The crime her brother had been convicted of was especially brutal. On May 21, 1980, Katharina Brow, 48, had been found murdered in the home that she shared with her husband, Charles, in Ayer, Mass., 35 miles northwest of Boston. She had been stabbed 30 times and robbed of $1,800 in cash that she kept in a linen closet. The crime scene was splashed with blood, some of which investigators believed had come from the killer as Brow fought for her life. The next day police questioned Kenny Waters, then 26, who at the time was already facing charges of assaulting a police officer. Kenny worked at a diner frequented by Brow, who openly talked about the money she had. But investigators had nothing concrete to link the crime to Kenny, who subsequently moved away for two years before returning to Rhode Island. It was then that two ex-girlfriends, one of whom is the mother of his daughter Mandy Marsh, now 22, claimed he had admitted to them that he killed Brow. Another witness testified that Kenny hated Brow because she had helped send him to reform school after he was caught breaking into her house at age 10.

Still, there were problems with the prosecution's case. One of the ex-girlfriends acknowledged that she and Kenny had been drinking when she heard the alleged confession. As for the bloody towels and curtains recovered from the crime scene, they established only that Kenny had the same blood type as the murderer. More to the point, the police hadn't noticed so much as a scratch on Kenny immediately after the crime. Kenny and Betty Anne were confident he would be acquitted. But during the five-day trial the jury bought the prosecution's version of events and convicted him. "We were devastated," says Betty Anne. "I haven't thought too much about that day because it hurts too much."

Instead she focused on clearing her brother. But her vow to help him by getting a law degree posed a daunting challenge for Betty Anne, then living in East Greenwich, R.I., who had only a General Equivalency Diploma. She first earned an associate's degree, then a bachelor's, in economics, from Rhode Island College. The hardest part, though, was managing her home life. In 1990 she and her husband, Richard Corrente, had divorced, leaving her to raise her sons Richard Jr., now 19, and Benjamin, 17, as a single mother. She earned money by waitressing, augmented by student loans and some modest financial aid. "I was trying to be a good mother, but it was hard," she says. "I had lots of homework, and I'd fall asleep at night with tons of books around my bed."

In 1995 she entered Roger Williams University law school in Bristol, R.I. There, in her third year, she did a research paper on the new science of DNA testing and quickly realized that it might be what she needed to free her brother. But it wasn't clear that the blood-soaked towels and curtains from the crime scene still existed, given that under Massachusetts law such physical evidence may be discarded 10 years after all appeals are exhausted.

Graduating in 1998, she passed the Rhode Island and Massachusetts bar exams. She began working as her brother's attorney, making formal requests for evidence. After repeated inquiries, a clerk at the courthouse in Cambridge finally located the evidence box from the Brow case in a basement storage area. Sifting through it, Betty Anne came upon the 19-year-old bloody items. She immediately called Kenny. "He was ecstatic," recalls Betty Anne. "He said, 'That's it, we're out of here.' "

First, though, Betty Anne needed the help of the Innocence Project, an organization formed by attorneys Scheck and Peter Neufeld to review DNA evidence in old cases and use it to free those wrongly convicted. Each year the Innocence Project receives hundreds of requests, but Betty Anne's stood out. "You could see the passion in her letter," says Scheck, whose book Actual Innocence is a study of some of the Project's most notable cases. "You could see the sacrifices she'd made and the dedication she had." With the assistance of Scheck's team, Betty Anne had the evidence tested. Some blood samples proved to be from Brow. But the tests showed that the remainder could not have come from Kenny, leaving a criminal court judge in Cambridge little choice but to vacate the conviction.

It is unclear what will happen to Kenny next. The Middlesex district attorney's office held out the possibility that he could be retried. Police assert that even if the blood was not Kenny's, he could still have been present as an accomplice. But Betty Anne and Scheck consider a retrial unlikely. Remarkably, Kenny isn't bitter about his years in prison.

"Life's a learning experience," he says. "You learn from everything. I've learned quite a bit [from this]. You always have to stay positive. If you go negative, you won't survive." For now Betty Anne has been flooded with offers from Hollywood to tell her story. Yet she can scarcely believe it herself. "I was absolutely hysterical," she says of the moment she heard that Kenny would be coming home. "I sat at my desk and just bawled like a baby."

Bill Hewitt
Jennifer Longley in Cambridge

  • Contributors:
  • Jennifer Longley.