Incendiary: The Willingham Case
Director : Co- Steve Mims
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 2011
The case referenced in the title of Joe Bailey Jr. and Steve Mims’s activist documentary Incendiary: The Willingham Case involved a man named Cameron Todd Willingham who was charged with purposefully setting a house fire in Corsicana, Texas, in 1991 that killed his three small children. He was convicted largely on the basis of arson investigators who claimed there was evidence that the fire was set with accelerants, and Willingham was executed by the state in 2004 after Governor Rick Perry’s office refused requests for a stay of execution to have his case reconsidered despite extensive evidence that the techniques used in the arson investigation were outdated pseudo-science.
The film is most compelling during its first half, as it takes us through the case and introduces many of its viewers (myself included) to the fact that arson investigation is a much trickier endeavor than we like to think. Although touted as a hard science based on testable evidence and rigorous methodologies, it turns out that, prior to the 1992 publication of NFPA 921: A Guide to Fire and Explosion Investigations by the National Fire Protection Association, arson investigation was based largely on intuition, long-held assumptions, and received wisdom that had little if any scientific backing. The film’s ace in the hole is Gerald Hurst, a Cambridge-educated chemist who has been studying fire science for 30 years and attests that the conclusions drawn in the Willingham case were wrong and that Todd Willingham was unjustly convicted and executed. The opposing perspective is maintained by none other than Willingham’s defense attorney, David Martin, who says in no uncertain terms that Willingham was nothing less than a monster who murdered his three children, a view also held by Willingham’s wife, who claims that her husband confessed to the murders before his execution (publicly Willingham asserted his innocence to the very end).
The second half of the film deals primarily with the complex morass of bureaucratic entanglements involved in getting Willingham’s case re-evaluated on the basis of the flawed investigation techniques that put him behind bars and led to his execution. Bailey Jr. and Mims have two ready-made villains on which to focus: Texas Governor Rick Perry, a staunch capital punishment supporter whose brash style makes him an easy target for those who oppose his politics, and John Bradley, Perry’s political ally whom he appointed as chair of the Texas Forensic Science Commission in 2009 apparently for the sole purpose of derailing the commission’s attempts to look into the Willingham case out of fear that it might be demonstrably revealed that an innocent man was, in fact, put to death by the state, thus undercutting the moral justification of capital punishment. It is here that the film starts to get both slippery and murky, as the filmmakers struggle with keeping separate the issues of good science and the adoption of the Willingham case by anti-capital punishment activists who saw it as their ultimate proof that the system doesn’t always work (not surprisingly, Barry Scheck and his Innocence Project were involved, and one of the film’s best moments occurs when he and John Bradley clash at one of the seemingly endless committee meetings).
Given that the film is being released in the midst of the Republican Presidential primaries, which included a bizarre moment during a debate in September in which the crowd cheered when moderator Brian Williams noted that 234 death row inmates have been executed during Perry’s tenure, “more than any other governor in modern times,” it is hard not to see Incendiary as an being a little too Perry-centric, at least in its second half. Granted, Perry plays right into the film’s hands with numerous on-camera statements during various interviews in which he trumpets with no uncertainty that Willingham committed murder and therefore deserved to be executed, thus lending credence to the idea that those in favor of capital punishment will do anything to hide a break-down in the system out of fear that it will cause the whole house of cards to come tumbling down. And, whenever Perry isn’t on screen, we have the humorless visage of his stand-in Bradley to remind us of the trumping of politics over justice.
The problem is that, despite all good intentions, Willingham--the individual who, despite being a deeply flawed and unpleasant man, was probably executed for something he didn’t do--gets lost. When Incendiary is focusing on the case itself, it has a stark and engaging humanism that matches the terrible fascination with investigatory techniques and the mystery of what actually happened when that house burned down back in 1991. Once it moves into the more abjectly political realm, it starts feeling more like an elaborate, preaching-to-the-choir anti-Perry campaign film than the meticulous deconstruction of injustice that it started out as, thus losing the opportunity to demonstrate in a more nuanced and compelling fashion that the system can (and sometimes does) allow the unthinkable.
Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick
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