Betty Anne Waters served as commencement speaker at the Earle Mack School of Law’s graduation ceremony May 19 at the Kimmel Center.
Waters pursued her law degree in order to overturn the murder conviction of her brother. She received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree in addition to giving the keynote address at the commencement ceremony, according to a Drexel press release.
Waters, whose story was the basis for the 2010 motion picture “Conviction,” featuring Hilary Swank as Waters, had originally left high school with one year remaining and was working as a waitress at Aidan’s Pub in Bristol, R.I.
She decided to return to school after her brother, Kenneth, who was serving life in prison without parole after being convicted of murder and armed robbery in 1983, attempted suicide in prison, according to The New York Times. After the attempted suicide, Waters told her brother she would return to school to work toward her law degree with the goal of overturning his conviction, if he promised to never attempt suicide again, according to the Drexel press release.Waters enrolled in the Community College of Rhode Island, Rhode Island College and Roger Williams University School of Law, where she received her Juris Doctor. In 2001, Waters helped to overturn her brother’s conviction, partly through work with lawyers at the Innocence Project, which assists with cases it believes featured incorrect guilty verdicts. Waters also uncovered evidence that had been assumed lost and convinced witnesses to recant false statements they had previously made against her brother, according to the press release.
After overturning her brother’s conviction, Waters returned to Aidan’s Pub, where she now serves as the pub’s general manager and co-owner. She also performs pro bono work for the Innocence Project..
Ted Oswald, a graduating law student, said he was very excited when he found out Waters would be speaking at the law school’s commencement, partly because Waters is different than a typical established commencement speaker.
“[I am] really excited to see [Drexel] putting someone on a pedestal who really represents a lot of the values I like to see in the [law] field,” Oswald said. He added that these values include self-sacrifice, family ties and a deep commitment to justice.
Oswald said Waters’ commitment and self-sacrifice are what stood out most to him about her story.
“I think it’s her commitment to something she really cared about,” he said.
Oswald said he hoped that during Waters’ speech, she would focus “on the things that are important in our lives as we move forward as graduates,” such as pursuing justice and prioritizing family. He said it is good to hear about qualities like these, rather than the negative attributes sometimes associated with lawyers.
After graduation, Oswald plans to enter human rights law. He, along with other Drexel law students, have visited Haiti and assisted with the LAMP for Haiti Foundation, which promotes health and human rights in Haiti. Oswald plans to continue work in Haiti after graduation as well.
Waters’ perseverance provides lessons for human rights lawyers, according to Oswald.
“[Her story shows] that perseverance is something human rights advocates really need to look to as an example … that it’s not a short-term commitment,” Oswald said.
Graduating law student Earthen Johnson said she believed the selection of Waters as speaker was “appropriate, especially knowing the obstacles that she overcame to get her law degree and her desire to achieve it.”
Johnson added that Waters’ speech may resonate more with the graduation audience than a more traditional commencement speaker’s presentation would, since a more traditional speaker “may lack a connection with the rest of the audience.” Johnson’s family, none of whom are lawyers, are also excited about Waters’ speech, Johnson said.
Johnson said she had seen “Conviction” in the fall and was therefore familiar with the story before she heard Waters would be the commencement speaker. Johnson said that when watching “Conviction” she was struck by the “fortitude and tenacity that [Waters] had.”
In addition, Waters’ story “kind of reminds you that no system is perfect, that we all have that duty to try to avoid those kinds of injustices,” Johnson added.
Johnson said one of the most impressive aspects of Waters’ story was that she was able to pursue her law degree with children. The sacrifice Waters showed is “hard even to comprehend,” Johnson added.
While at Drexel, Johnson participated in the Marshall-Brennan Constitutional Literacy Project along with other law students from Drexel and other universities. Through this project, Johnson helped teach students at West Philadelphia High School about constitutional law issues.
Johnson, who plans to enter corporate law after graduation, said this community volunteer work, in addition to Waters’ experiences, have helped show her the importance of always remembering a lawyer’s duty to help with pro bono issues. Johnson also said Waters’ story illustrates the importance of being aware that the legal system is not perfect and that lawyers must always be cognizant and careful of this fact.
The May 19 graduation ceremony was the third commencement in the law school’s history.