Incendiary: The Willingham Case

Incendiary: The Willingham Case

2011, NR, 102 min. Directed by Joe Bailey Jr., Steve Mims.

REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Sept. 23, 2011

Depending on your point of view – and, perhaps, your political persuasion – the name Cameron Todd Willingham incites different reactions. Texas Gov. Perry calls him a monster. His own defense attorney calls him a psychopath. Others call him – or rather, call his conviction in 1992 and his subsequent execution in 2004 – a jaw-dropping miscarriage of justice.

In 1991, a few days shy of Christmas, Willingham’s house in Corsicana, Texas, burned down with his three toddler daughters still inside. Willingham escaped with minor burns. He attempted to re-enter the house and was eventually restrained by police officers to prevent further injury to himself or to others. Two weeks later, Willingham was arrested and charged with murder. He was offered a plea bargain – confess to setting the fire and he’d get life, said the state prosecutors – but Willingham declined. He was found guilty and executed by the state of Texas in 2004. He never – publicly, at least – stopped insisting he was innocent.

As its title suggests, the locally produced Incendiary: The Willingham Case is concerned with the case, not the person of Willingham, who seems pretty universally accepted to have been physically abusive to his wife and, as one attorney puts it, an “SOB”  Both sides of the death-penalty debate have enlisted the example of Willingham to their cause, painting him alternately a martyr or a poster “monster” for the state getting it right. But Incendiary smartly sidesteps that firestorm to focus on the science used to convict Willingham. Junk science, it turns out.

The case against Willingham was premised on the idea that the fire was arson; that’s what the fire marshals on the scene determined, using the standards widely practiced at the time, bolstered by a common attitude that fire investigation is an art, not a science. But when Willingham’s advocates later brought in fire experts to re-examine the investigation – including the raggedy-bearded Gerald Hurst (who invented the Mylar balloon, incidentally) and John Lentini – they determined that evidence of arson was inconclusive. Ergo: no proof of arson, no proof of murder.

Incendiary, which won the Louis Black Award at the 2011 South by Southwest Film Festival, gets technical fast. Luckily, fire is an incredibly cinematic thing, and Lentini and Hurst, both of whom are interviewed extensively here, are articulate, animated speakers. As the fire experts dismantle the prosecution’s case, co-directors Steve Mims (a longtime fixture in the Austin filmmaking and teaching community) and Joe Bailey Jr. (a law school graduate and former student of Mims’) artfully illustrate the technical aspects of the case, taking concepts like “crazed glass” and making them concrete and easy to understand.

The film also follows the efforts of the Texas Forensic Science Commission to re-evaluate the case – efforts that were undermined from within when Perry abruptly removed three members of the committee and installed a combative new chairman for whom “transparency” appeared to be a very dirty word indeed. Scientific inquiry bumps up against political maneuvering – wanna guess which side comes out on top?

Aggravated by his opponents' political rhetoric and special flair for twisting words (undermining accredited fire investigators' authority by referring to them repeatedly as "supposed" experts or "so-called" experts, for instance), Hurst worries to the camera about what he calls the current "anti-intellectual" climate in our country. Well, you know what they say: Everything's bigger in Texas, including the irrational hostility toward science, toward learning, toward temperance, as Mims and Bailey's well-made, deeply disheartening film demonstrates.

For Jordan Smith’s interviews with the directors, see her SXSW coverage in "The Case That Wouldn't Stay Closed," March 11, and "Even More Incendiary, March 11."