Through interviews, photographs, and narration, Incendiary documents the infamous Willingham case. At 9:00 am on December 23, 1991, in my former hometown of Corsicana, Texas, Cameron Todd Willingham’s house burned down, killing his twin babies and two-year-old girl. Based on “expert” testimony at his trial that the fire was not accidental but an arson, a jury convicted Willingham and sentenced him to death. However, prior to his 2004 execution, the official fire investigation association changed its policy on how to scientifically conduct such investigations. One of the investigators who re-examined the case points out the two fire investigators s who testified at Willingham’s trial were convinced that such investigations aren’t really science; instead one of them claimed that the “fire talks to me and fires don’t lie.” Through the findings of Gerald Hurst, who has a Ph.D. in chemistry, the film carefully explains each of the mistaken assumptions that these investigators made, ultimately concluding that Willingham was convicted without any valid evidence of arson.
Despite this exculpatory evidence, Willingham wasn’t able to obtain a stay of his execution. In some captivating and heart-wrenching scenes, the filmmakers show how conservative politics interfered with the exposure of the truth. As a criminal defense attorney, I’m well aware that the justice system is stacked against criminal defendants, but it was still eye-opening to see the measures that were taken to suppress efforts to exonerate Willingham.
For example, Sam Bassett, who’s a prominent defense attorney in Austin, Texas, was removed as chairman of the Texas Forensic Science Commission three days before the committee was set to make a finding on the case. Governor Rick Perry, who had previously denied a stay of execution on the case despite Hurst’s report regarding the invalidity of the fire investigators’ testimony at Willingham’s trial, didn’t want an official finding that Texas had executed an innocent man. As a result, he removed the fair-minded, justice-seeking Bassett in favor of Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley, who epitomizes the reasons why I chose to make a living defending people’s rights.
In theory, prosecutors are supposed to seek justice (whether that means dismissing a case when there’s insufficient evidence or pursuing the maximum penalty when there’s compelling evidence that a habitual criminal committed a heinous crime). But, as Bassett points out, this ideal is often lost on prosecutors in our adversarial system, where obtaining a conviction can become the priority over justice. The filmmakers show Bradley painstakingly attempting to halt the pursuit of justice in this case. There’s a moment when renowned defense attorney Barry Scheck launches into a tirade against him, and the audience at the theater cheered. Bradley is a true villain here. And so is Rick Perry, as Bradley appears to be doing his dirty work. Of course, it’s embarrassing to have killed an innocent man, so the politically-minded Perry continues to deny Willingham’s innocence while ignoring evidence to the contrary. Corsicana prosecutors and judges take a hit, too, as the film accuses them of suppressing evidence that a jailhouse snitch recanted his testimony that Willingham confessed to the murder. This recantation occurred prior to Willingham’s execution, so blood is definitely on their hands.
Following Bradley’s efforts to impede the Willingham investigation, Willingham’s supporters were able to convince the liberal-minded Judge Charlie Baird to open a court of inquiry into the case right here in Austin. Although the Court of Appeals ultimately stopped Judge Baird’s laudatory efforts at justice, Baird was able to give Willingham a posthumous chance at justice, as expert witnesses debunked the “junk science” on which his conviction was based. (As a sidenote, we miss you Judge Baird!)
It seems unbelievable that such a miscarriage of justice could happen in our system, but in one of the film’s most moving scenes, Bassett explains how the scientific method often doesn’t apply in an adversarial system, despite the fact that someone who seeks the truth should always want more information. His comments made me consider the origins of this particular injustice. Perhaps, it stems from the fact that the crime occurred in small-town Corsicana, where the media convicted Willingham prior to his trial. I vaguely recall being a 10-year-old boy living in Corsicana when the incident occurred, and after his conviction, everyone in the town was happy that justice was served (despite the anti-death penalty protests that the trial provoked). It’s hard to obtain a fair trial when no one believes you’re innocent, and I imagine that everyone on the jury had read about the crime in The Corsicana Daily Sun or seen footage on the news. Even Willingham’s defense attorney, David Martin, describes Willingham as a “monster” and declares that he got what he deserved. Needless to say, Martin doesn’t look very good in this film.
Incendiary’s a captivating documentary that attempts to take an even-handed approach to the investigation. However, at the point when it’s obvious that there’s a wrong side to this case, the filmmakers aren’t afraid to make heroes and villains out of the players in the story. And if anything good can come out of this travesty of justice, maybe it’s that the public will hold its leaders a little more accountable for how they run the criminal justice system.