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Incendiary: The Willingham Case (2011)

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In 1991, Cameron Todd Willingham's three daughters died in a Corsicana, Texas house fire. Tried and convicted for their arson murders, Willingham was executed in February 2004 despite ... See full summary »

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In 1991, Cameron Todd Willingham's three daughters died in a Corsicana, Texas house fire. Tried and convicted for their arson murders, Willingham was executed in February 2004 despite overwhelming expert criticism of the prosecution's arson evidence. Today, Willingham's name has become a call for reform in the field of forensics and a rallying cry for the anti-death penalty movement; yet he remains an indisputable "monster" in the eyes of Texas Governor Rick Perry, who ignored the science that could have saved Willingham's life. Equal parts murder mystery, forensic investigation and political drama, INCENDIARY documents the haunted legacy of a prosecution built on "folklore." Written by Anonymous

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Incendiary: The Willingham Case: A Fascinating Film about Science, Politics and a Texas Execution
6 May 2011 | by (Austin, TX, United States) – See all my reviews

I had the pleasure of seeing the World Premiere of Incendiary: The Willingham at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin, TX. This is an appropriate place to see this story about the deep injustices that exist in the Texas Judicial system. The film lays out in often excruciating and exacting detail the horrifying story of Cameron Todd Willingham was charged, convicted, and ultimately executed for crime that it now seems almost certain that he did not commit. In 1991, Willingham was charged with one of the worst crimes imaginable, the arson murder of his three young daughters. His conviction appears to have been based an arson investigation that was more pseudoscience than actual science. While the prosecutors and investigators may not have intended initially to prosecute an innocent man that was what appears to have happened. The experts are able to clearly make the case that there was no scientific basis for the Willingham's conviction and 2004 conviction.

On top of the scientific case, Incendiary makes the case that Gov. Rick Perry first ignored the evidence of Willingham's innocence and then essentially orchestrated a process to try to obstruct the Forensic Science Commission's investigation to avoid embarrassment during his 2009-2010 re-election campaign. As has happened so often in recent years, science has been ignored when it conflicts with politics. One need only think about the debates on teaching evolution in public schools, prohibitions on stem cell research, attempts to discredit the science of global warming to recognize that politicians are often willing to disregard scientific evidence that contradicts with their political agenda. The film is not intended to crusade against the death penalty as much as it is to demonstrate the dangers of using it without proper safeguards. The film could easily be paired with an earlier documentary, At the Death House Door, which makes the case that Texas wrongly executed Carlos De Luna in 1995. It is becoming increasingly clear that the death penalty system – particularly in Texas - is badly broken.

The filmmakers do an excellent job of presenting a complex and detailed story in a way that the ordinary person can follow. The audience seemed completely entranced as they watch the story play out. At times, people were even laughing – particularly as they listened to the interviewed with Willingham's former defense attorney who was now making the case that he had been correctly convicted and executed. To make such a horrifying story fascinating, explanatory, and entertaining is a remarkable feat of filmmaking. Everyone interested in the debate in this country over the death penalty should watch this film. It is not a polemic, but rather scholarly exposition of a single deeply trouble case. For those opposed to the death penalty, this film is simply more proof that it cannot be carried out in a fair and scientific manner. For those who support the death penalty as just penalty for those who commit the most heinous crimes, the challenge is even greater. A film like Incendiary asks them to implement reforms – to the system of forensic science and to the use of jail house snitches – to make sure that the death penalty is implemented in a manner that will prevent the execution of innocent people.


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