In December of 1991 a fire swept through a small home in Corsicana, Texas. Cameron Todd Willingham escaped with minor injuries, but his three small children, none older than a toddler, all perished in the blaze. Willingham was a known bastard who slapped his wife around more than once, and two weeks after the fire he was arrested and charged with the murder of his children. Thirteen years later he was executed for the crime. The years between those two events saw substantial changes in the forensic field, particularly in regard to fire investigation, but every effort to revisit the case by those who believed the evidence now showed Willingham to be innocent were ignored, refused, and stopped in their tracks.
Documentaries about arguably innocent men and women are nothing new, and while they all have value beyond the images on the screen their arguments are usually based on recanted testimony, evidence of corruption, and other examples of intentional human fallibility. Few make their case for the subject’s innocence on the power of evidence alone. And fewer still come to such a potentially tragic conclusion as Incendiary: The Willingham Case.
“As a scientist, the things I don’t know haunt me constantly.”
The fire that took the lives of the three Willingham children was ruled arson by Corsicana’s fire investigators, and he was convicted based on the evidence they recorded. Directors Joe Bailey Jr and Steve Mims describe in great detail the problem with this scenario… namely that fire investigation in the early nineties was quite literally viewed and labeled as an “art” as opposed to a “science.” The standards of the job consisted of second hand information, lore, and people who actually said things like “the fire speaks to me.”
Evidence like burn patterns on the floor and ‘crazed’ glass windows were interpreted in a certain way, but in the years that followed multiple professionals and scientists including John Lentini (Arson Expert) and Gerald Hurst (Chemist) examined the case again using proper technique and hard science. Their findings were specific , unanimous, and very clear.
None of this was evidence of arson. And no arson means no crime.
In addition to explaining the science of fire investigation in a concise, understandable, and enlightening way the film’s other great achievement is in regard to its politics. As in it has none. But while the film avoids that trap several of the key players do not. Texas Governor Rick Perry for one comes out looking as if decisions he made in regard to the case were highly suspect. At best his refusal to listen to the science shows him as anti-intellectual, and at worst he acted out of political motivation. A man’s life was at stake, and neither of those choices are very appealing. The left isn’t immune to the pull of politics either, and the film also shows the efforts of some to turn Willingham’s case into an anti-death penalty crusade.
While the film does give face time to a handful of people convinced that the original trial was fair and that Willingham is guilty, the two original arson investigators are not among them. It’s understandable that the men would pass on speaking with the filmmakers, but viewers are given no reason or excuse for their absence. It’s a minor misstep, but in a documentary so focused on successfully expressing the facts behind the science the gap is a noticeable one.
This is a case that really should have been decided by science, but as often happens in situations where people are divided by reasons beyond the factual it comes down to emotion, conviction, and a hard refusal to admit you could actually be wrong. The Christmastime deaths of three sweet, little girls in a state and system dedicated to the ‘eye for an eye’ mentality created facts out of opinions and a desire to punish. No amount of evidence or testimony was going to change that.
You know what’s important to me in the case is not Willingham, it’s the babies. Can you imagine them crawling around in that inferno and their skin melting off and their eyeballs exploding and the two year old suffocating on smoke while daddy runs out of the house? If you want to feel sorry for somebody Willingham got to lay on the gurney and get put to sleep before he died. The babies died the most horrible death you can imagine. And they died that way because Willingham set the house on fire because he was a psychopath and a sociopath.”
The man speaking is David Martin… Willingham’s Defense Attorney.
Incendiary comes too late to help Cameron Willingham in any capacity apart from a posthumous clearing of his name. But that’s by design, as his death, one that was most likely dealt without cause, can still serve as a warning to states that subscribe to the institution of capital punishment. The doc isn’t arguing to end the death penalty, but instead it’s advocating for a more responsible and reliable usage of a punishment that is irreversible. And isn’t that something everyone, regardless of politics, should be able to agree upon?
The Upside: Thorough presentation of the science behind fire investigation; sticks mostly to facts with only brief excursions into emotion; compelling arguments against each pint of the supposed evidence used to convict Willingham
The Downside: Missing interviews from original fire investigators; documentaries can’t manufacture happy endings and instead are forced to stick with what really happened
Incendiary: The Willingham Case is currently playing in limited theatrical release.