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.