In the new movie "Conviction," two-time Oscar-winning actress Hilary Swank portrays real-life Betty Anne Waters, whose brother Kenny was convicted of murdering a Massachusetts woman, Katharina Brow, in 1980.
Now Swank – whose character gets a law degree to help prove her brother's innocence – has suddenly become the film's second victim.
This afternoon at a press conference streamed live on TMZ.com, feminist lawyer Gloria Allred claimed that neither Swank – an executive producer for the movie – nor the film company ever contacted Brow's children.
Allred said that the children – Melrose and Charles, who were also at the news conference – "want to express their disappointment and anger about what they believe is a failure by the producers of the new movie 'Conviction' to show respect and compassion for their family, when it was the brutal murder of their mother that triggered events which are the basis for this feature film which will be released tomorrow."
Allred described Katharina Brow as a loving mother and grandmother, and victim of "a cold, heartless and brutal murder." Kenneth Waters spent 18 years in prison while his sister, who did not have a college degree, put herself through law school so that she could fight for his freedom.
Although the movie, said Allred, had reportedly been in development for about 10 years – and that the events in the movie would never have occurred had it not been for Brow's murder – "the film's producers, including Ms. Swank, have never bothered to contact the victim's family" during that time. "In fact, to this day, the children of the murder victim have never been contacted by Hilary Swank…or by anyone connected to the film," she said.
Allred said Swank's description of "Conviction," during a Larry King interview on CNN, as "a feel-good movie" is not a description shared by Brow's children and family.
"The release of 'Conviction' and the press tour that accompanies it does not make them feel good, the fact that their mother is mentioned in it does not make them feel good and the fact that neither Ms. Swank nor anyone else connected to the film has had the decency to contact the family about the terrible tragedy they have suffered does not make them feel good," said Allred.
"[The children] should have been asked if they had any questions about the film and they should have been consulted about any portrayal of their mother and her murder," she said. "They should also have been asked if they wished to attend a private screening."
According to Reuters, the producers of "Conviction" sought to placate their concerns, issuing a statement expressing their sympathy for the daughter and son of victim Katharina Brow and noting that Swank, an executive producer on the movie, was brought aboard "after the script was written and the film was greenlit." Late Thursday, three producers issued a joint statement saying, "we have the deepest compassion and sympathy for the family of Katharina Brow" and added that they would arrange a screening for Melrose and Charlie.
Allred – spoofed last weekend on "Saturday Night Live" as a publicity hound, famous for representing women whose plights quickly became media fodder – announced that she has sent a letter to Swank, and hoped for "a positive, thoughtful and caring response."
The letter requests a meeting between the children and Swank and the filmmakers. "[Melrose's] mother was not just a name, and was not and is not a person who should be used as a line in a script or just a way to make a profit for the entertainment industry," Allred wrote. The correspondence also included questions that Melrose would have asked the filmmakers had she been contacted.
Allred concedes this is not a legal issue, but a moral one. "It should be for Hollywood producers to reach out," said Allred, rather than having the burden fall on the victim's family members to get in touch with Hollywood. "You have time to make a movie, you have time to make a phone call."
And, Allred told ABCnews.com, a letter to a victim's family is insufficient. "There needs to be a conversation," she said. "Filmmakers should have the courtesy to listen to family members' concerns."
Although Allred said she has hopes for a new moral standard in Hollywood associated with this type of issue, not all legal experts think the matter is so simple.
"A film producer may be reluctant to talk to people not central to or depicted in the movie, because it may start a slippery slope," said Jimmy Nguyen, an entertainment and intellectual property lawyer at Wildman Harrold Allen & Dixon in Los Angeles.
Nguyen cites impracticality – there may be too many people to contact. "Family members contacted also may request monetary compensation, even though legally there is no obligation," he said. "And the family may make requests that would complicate making the film."
The key question for filmmakers, said Nguyen, should be, "Whose perspective is being shown?" In the case of "Conviction," he said, the focus is on Betty Anne Waters and her brother Kenny. And, he added, White had sold the rights to her story. The information about Brow used in "Conviction" was public knowledge, used in court documents.
Allred said she doesn't buy into the argument that producers' lives would be complicated if they reach out to the people in their films. "Nothing is more complicated than the life of a murder victim's family," she said.