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DVD Review: Incendiary – The Willingham Case

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On February 17, 2004 the state of Texas executed Cameron Todd Willingham for the arson murder of his three children in 1991. By that time, the scientific evidence upon which Willingham had been convicted had been challenged by experts in fire science, the case had become something of a cause célèbre for anti-death penalty advocates, and perhaps most importantly it was a political football of epic proportions. All his appeals denied, clemency, and even a 30- day stay to investigate the scientific challenges denied by hard line law and order Governor Rick Perry, Willingham ate his last meal and was executed by lethal injection.

Incendiary, the award winning documentary directed by Steve Mims and Joe Bailey, Jr., is the disturbing account of the Willingham case and its aftermath. Although the film comes to no absolute conclusion about the man’s guilt or innocence, it makes clear that the evidence upon which he was convicted was flawed—a combination of junk science and unreliable witness testimony. Moreover the legal representation he was afforded by the state was something less than stellar. Though the film does leave the question of guilt open, it seems clear where the film maker’s sympathies lie. At the very least in refusing to take an objective look at the new scientific evidence the powers that be in the state of Texas failed to give the accused a fair hearing, at worst they executed an innocent man.

The film maker’s interest in the case, as they explain in an interview included as a bonus on the newly released DVD, stemmed from a 2009 article in The New Yorker by David Grann, in which he vividly takes the reader from the house fire to the execution, and introduces all of the key players. Recognizing a good story, Mims and Bailey began their own investigation. They managed extensive interviews with those who questioned as well as those who supported the arson allegations so that they were able to create a complementary visual account of the history of the case to that of Grann. Then when the Texas Forensic Science Commission began to look into the case after the adoption of new standards for fire investigations by the National Fire Protection Association they were able to follow the new attempts to clear Willingham’s name. It is a story that plays like a TV forensic drama.

It has a cast of characters made for TV. Willingham, himself, as nearly everyone interviewed acknowledges was far from a nice guy. Indeed, he comes off much better in Grann’s article than he does in the film. Elizabeth Gilbert, a volunteer with an anti-death penalty group, who befriended him in prison, gets much more time from Grann than she does in the film. She is interviewed but not as extensively as the two major fire scientists, more than likely because she comes across rather blandly on screen, whereas the two scientists, Lentini and Hurst, are attention getters.

The film begins with Lentini ridiculing the original forensic investigation. He is assertive and acerbic. He comes across as a straight talker with no tolerance for fools. Hurst, on the other hand, has the appearance of a street person—a long unkempt grey beard, stooped and thin, he looks in need of a good meal. Yet when he speaks, he speaks with authority, and it turns out he has the credentials to back up what he says. He explains the science with the kind of clarity that makes it intelligible even to scientific illiterates.

The other side has its dynamos too. David Martin, Willingham’s defense attorney is adamant both about the quality of the case he made for the man as well as his belief in his guilt. He teasingly allows that were it not for attorney client privilege, he has enough damning information to prove Willingham’s guilt. Then there is John Bradley, the district attorney appointed by Governor Perry to chair the Forensic Science Committee, who seems to be doing his best to stall the hearings. Although he is never interviewed for the film, his contretemps with Barry Scheck lawyer for the Innocence Project makes for some real life dramatic conflict. Later reporting seems to indicate that Bradley is changing his opinions about reconsidering scientific evidence as a result of another case.

It is hard to come away from this film feeling that justice has been served in the Willingham case. It is almost cliché to say that the death penalty once carried out doesn’t give you the opportunity to correct mistakes. You have to get it right. There are those that believe that the evidence that convicted Cameron Todd Willingham was flawed; there are those that believe that flawed or not he was a guilty “monster.” Justice would seem to indicate that new exculpatory evidence should at least be considered and evaluated. This is the message of the film. It is an important message, powerfully delivered.

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About Jack Goodstein

  • Dudley Sharp

    Incendiary” film – Cameron Todd Willingham – Truth or Fiction?
    From: Dudley Sharp

    Widely Distributed 2/16/11, 3/14/11

    I look forward to seeing the documentary film, “Incendiary”, which concerns the forensics in the Cameron Todd Willingham case.

    Both filmmakers, Steve Mims and Joe Bailey Jr., were very influenced by David Grann’s New Yorker article “Trial by Fire”.

    I deconstructed “Trial by Fire” even BEFORE I had read the trial transcript and police reports (1). The article was that one sided and misleading. It appears that both Mims and Bailey were unaware of that. That may not bode well for the objectivity of “Incendiary”.

    Evidently, neither Mims nor Bailey noticed the problems with fire expert Gerald Hurst (1), who is a major part of “Incendiary”. Too bad.

    Nor did they notice the problems with the Innocence Project Arson Review Report (2), which fire expert John Lentini participated in. Lentini is, of course, another major player in “Incendiary”.

    I have both written and collected a number of articles on the Willingham case, many dealing with some obvious misunderstandings of it (3).

    I hope “Incendiary” is a true documentary and avoids many of the disasters from another alleged documentary “At the Death House Door” (4)

    I think a documentary is supposed to be non fiction. Yes?

    The number of false claims of the exonerated or innocent cases, by the anti death penalty folks, is a disturbing reality in the death penalty debate (5). I can hope “Incendiary” is not just jumping onto that unfortunate bandwagon.

    For example:

    “There can no longer be any doubt that an innocent person (Willingham) has been executed. The question now turns to how we can stop it from happening again,’ Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck says (6).

    This claim is, of course, false. But Scheck and the Innocence Project refuse to take it down. Why? Maybe an anti death penalty agenda or other interests?

    Of course, Scheck plays a leading role in the film, another strike against objectivity.

    There is of course much doubt. The fire most certainly could have been arson and, if there was a flashover, as many have concluded, such would have destroyed the evidence of arson. This is very well known in fire forensics.

    We could have an audio/video recording of Todd Willingham setting the fire and letting his children burn to death and we would, likely, still find the same complaints about the forensic reports from the time of the fire and at trial, even though arson/murder was definitive.

    Can a documentary not lie and be totally misleading by omission? Of course. Is “Incendiary” truth or fiction? I’ll wait and see.

    1) Cameron Todd Willingham: Media meltdown & the death penalty: “Trial by Fire: Did Texas execute an innocent man?”, by David Grann

    2) Innocence Project Report: Cameron Todd Willingham

    3) “Cameron Todd Willingham: Another Media Meltdown”, A Collection of Articles

    4) “At the Death House Door” Can Rev. Carroll Pickett be trusted?”

    5) a) “The Innocent Executed: Deception & Death Penalty Opponents”

    b) The 130 (now 138) death row “innocents” scam

    c) Sister Helen Prejean & the death penalty: A Critical Review”

    6) News Release, Innocence Project