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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
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.
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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