Texas crime, and punishment
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, Sep 30, 2011
An audience favorite at this year's Silverdocs documentary festival, "Incendiary: The Willingham Case" provides a gripping, appalling and finally galling tick-tock of justice denied in modern-day Texas.
With such figures as Troy Davis, Lawrence Brewer and Gov. Rick Perry so recently in the news, this story of a botched death-penalty case - which the filmmakers argue resulted in a man being wrongfully executed in 2004 - qualifies as one of the most timely movies of the year. But as expertly crafted by filmmakers Steve Mims and Joe Bailey Jr., "Incendiary" possesses the hallmarks of true-crime nonfiction filmmaking at its most classic.
In 1991, in Corsicana, Tex., Cameron Todd Willingham escaped his burning house while his three young daughters died inside of smoke inhalation. Accused of setting the blaze himself, Willingham was imprisoned, tried and sentenced to death on the basis of testimony from arson investigators whose methods, one expert in "Incendiary" suggests, were on par with "witchcraft" and "folklore."
At the precise time that Willingham was facing arson charges, the forensic science of fire investigation was undergoing a radical change, with new scientific methods finally being codified into an industry standard. But even though hard evidence suggested that Willingham didn't set the fatal fire, the new facts were either ignored by or never brought to the attention of appeals courts and state authorities, most of whom where convinced of Willingham's guilt (including his own defense attorney, who makes a particularly hard-bitten appearance in "Incendiary").
"He's a monster who killed his children," repeats Perry, who as Willingham's execution approached and new evidence came to light, still refused to sign a 30-day reprieve. Later, when the questions surrounding Willingham's case became too troublesome to ignore, Perry would pack a state forensics review commission with his own allies, chief among them a prosecutor named John Bradley who gives the "politics ain't beanbag" truism new, bare-knuckled meaning.
Inspired by a New Yorker article by David Grann, Mims and Bailey waste no time in plunging viewers into the scientific thicket of fire science, with such experts as Gerald Hurst and John Lentini swiftly familiarizing laypeople with such arcana as post-flash-over-burning, accelerants and puddle patterns.
But as laid out and illustrated by the filmmakers, such tutorials take on the suspense of a real-life thriller, as the loopholes in Willingham's case become disquietingly larger.
When the case comes to the attention of the anti-death-penalty group the Innocence Project, "Incendiary" takes on the contours of a David-and-Goliath fight between scrappy outsiders and the poker-faced stonewallers and skilled knife-fighters who, in an effort not to sully Perry's execution record (234 and counting), continually kick the Willingham case down the road until the three-time governor's next election.
(If "Incendiary" is missing anything, it's a postscript updating viewers as to the case's journey through court and commission reviews, which at this writing are either suspended or still pending.)
Crime, punishment, morality and hardball politics make for an explosive narrative mix all their own in "Incendiary," which should be required viewing for anyone interested in those issues, much less the record of a candidate who wants to be the next president of the United States.
But this riveting film will also please fans of simple true-crime stories well told, evoking such exemplars of the form as the "The Thin Blue Line" (one of whose principals, a state psychiatrist dubbed "Dr. Death," makes a cameo appearance here) and the "Paradise Lost" films.
Of course, those latter movies - along with new forensic evidence - eventually helped the "West Memphis Three" win release from jail, just last month. Despite "Incendiary's" impressive achievement proving why his case deserves to be reconsidered, Cameron Todd Willingham will never have that camera-ready ending.
Contains disturbing thematic material.