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Incendiary: The Willingham Case (2011)

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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Politics in Texas can be murder. See more »



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7 October 2011 (USA)  »

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1 August 2011 | by (Austin, TX) – See all my reviews

Here's a brief overview of the case that is the subject of this documentary: Cameron Todd Willingham was convicted of murder by arson of his three daughters in 1991 and put to death in 2004. Since then, a number of death penalty advocates have claimed his innocence by criticizing the evidence presented in 1991.

Before watching the film, I had been following the case very closely and read everything I could about the case. As such, I knew at the conclusion of this film that the filmmakers had presented only one side of the story.

Notably, the entire film is based on, and only on, interviews with Todd Willingham's defense - the most notable interviews are with Willingham's defense attorney at trial, David Martin, and the expert, Gerald Hurst, who claims the state's arson is flawed (based on over 10 years of hindsight). What is absent is an interview with a prosecutor, judge, witness, jury member, state expert, or even a neutral expert to balance the audience's perspective. Instead, the film represents the state with some choice footage which appears to be intended to cast current state politicians (no one who was actually involved in the trial, mind you) in a bad light.

At one point the film cuts to "The State's Case" (or something like that). Who presents "The State's Case?" Not the prosecutor (or any prosecutor for that matter). Rather, the state's case is presented by the same guy advocating for the defense, Gerald Hurst, the expert who calls Willingham "innocent" based on retrospective findings that the arson evidence was inconclusive (Calling someone innocent based on inconclusive findings seems contradicting in itself but the filmmakers never seem to question Hurst's declarations).

This one-sided presentation leaves Martin, Willingham's defense attorney at trial, to defend the state's case because Martin has no doubt that Willingham is guilty. Since when does the defense attorney become the best guy to defend the state's case? Even so, Martin makes a couple of points that strike home - for instance, he points out that Willingham's fire took a very unnatural 90-degree turn into the three girls' bedroom. This point is never refuted. Also, the filmmakers present footage of Willingham's ex-wife (and mother of the dead children) making a public declaration in 2009 or 2010 that Willingham told her he did it. And finally, the most interesting footage of the movie involves Martin stating that there may be other reasons why he believes Willingham is guilty but those reasons are protected by attorney-client privilege...

Despite a few interesting parts like that, I found myself very disappointed in the objectivity of this film. The film never addresses the confession that Willingham supposedly made to a jail-house snitch, Willingham's violent and drug-riddled history, the fact that Willingham kept changing his story as to what happened, Willingham's incriminating behavior during and shortly after the fire, or aspects of the fire that indicated arson (other than Martin's point). Instead, the film seems focused on presenting Willingham's detractors as the bad guys.

The film's unilateral presentation is disappointing because this case could have made for a very educational and interesting case study.

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