‘Incendiary: The Willingham Case’: Justice gets burned

October 7, 2011


Given the zeitgeist about the death penalty and the execution of innocent people from the Troy Davis Case – and the presidential campaign of Texas Gov. Rick Perry – the timing couldn’t be better for the release of the documentary, “Incendiary: The Willingham Case.”

This film, by Steve Mims and Joe Bailey Jr., is just what its title implies: a match being lit to a tinderpile of flimsy evidence that led to the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham in Texas in 2004 after his 1992 conviction for setting the fire that killed his three babies.

Yet this isn’t a high-minded discourse on the morality of execution in general. Nor is it about the notion of reasonable doubt.

Rather, it is about the science of fire investigation, the ignorance of fire investigators whose “expert” testimony sent Willingham to the death chamber, and the concerted CYA efforts by Perry and his minions when questions about that same fire science were raised.

In each instance, Texas gets a failing grade: for its lack of willingness to address its own ignorance, for its insistence on supporting outdated methods that were since debunked by science, and for its bull-headed refusal to consider the possibility that a mistake was being made in Willingham’s case.

But then, this is a state which, three times, has elected a governor who calls evolution “a theory that’s out there” and regularly refers to climate change as a hoax. He’s a Christian who has not a single doubt about the record number of people his state has executed. And now he’s a serious contender for president.

Mims and Bailey start with the science: how, for years, fire investigators were taught the lore that was passed down from one fireman to another – and how much of this supposed “technique” for fire investigation was later debunked by chemists and physicists, studying the properties of fire.

The film then turns its attention to the Willingham case: of a perpetual ne’er-do-well, the father of a 3-year-old daughter and infant twins who was known as a short-tempered troublemaker. He had been in trouble for spouse abuse in the past but was still trying to make a go of it with his long-suffering wife in the small town of Corsicana, Texas.

Willingham awoke from a nap one morning shortly before Christmas, 1991, to find his clapboard house engulfed in flames. He ran out of the house and, according to neighbors, then tried to get back in to save his children. But the flames and heat were too intense and all three children died.

In short order, the local fire investigators decided the evidence pointed to arson and tagged Willingham as the culprit. He was poorly represented at trial (by a court-appointed attorney, who is interviewed in the film about his own belief that Willingham was a monster who killed his own children) – and sentenced to death.

As his appeals worked their way through the courts, death-penalty opponents took up his case and brought in fire scientists, including Gerald Hurst, whose report was submitted shortly before Willingham’s execution and ignored by Perry. Willingham, protesting his innocence to the last moment, was executed in 2004.

The last half of the film is about the subsequent attempts to get reports by Hurst and scientist John Lentini before the state fire investigation board and to change the state’s standards for fire investigation. Again, Perry does his best to be an obstruction – going so far as to replace the head of the board the day before the board is supposed to meet to consider the report.

As a documentary, “Incendiary” is decidedly even-handed, even as it raises the temperature of those watching. It presents a press conference by Willingham’s widow, who claims that, in his final hours, Willingham admitted that he had killed the children, without commenting on her motives for suddenly coming forth with a statement that refuted everything she had previously said – on the day of an exoneration hearing for the late Willingham, accompanied by a lawyer from the law firm of former Bush attorney general John Ashcroft.

Yet the dispassionate explanations of fire science by Hurst and Lentini seem so clear, so unbiased, that the legal travesty becomes clear. So does Perry’s stubborn insistence on his own rightness.

This isn’t a film about the rightness and wrongness of the death penalty. It is about human unwillingness to admit a mistake, even at the cost of an innocent human life. Tragedy compounds tragedy in “Incendiary: The Willingham Case,” showing that, in Texas, the main interest of those who govern is self-interest.

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