By Linc Leifeste | September 23, 2011
Directors: Joe Bailey Jr., Steve Mims
For those that don’t know, Cameron Todd Willingham was executed by the State of Texas on February 17, 2004 for the arson deaths of his three daughters, two-year old Amber and one-year old twins Karmon and Kameron in Corsicana, TX on December 23, 1991. It wouldn’t be surprising if the name and the case aren’t familiar. Considering that the State of Texas had executed two men earlier that same month and has executed 155 since, it can be hard to keep the names and stories straight. But hopefully Incendiary: The Willingham Case, a gripping new documentary covering the case and its aftermath, will help place Willingham’s name and story more prominently in the public eye. Considering that it’s very possible that an innocent man was executed, this is a story that deserves to be heard.
It’s a tragic story. Willingham’s wife, Stacy, left their three young girls home with their father that fateful December morning to go do some Christmas shopping. Not long after, a fire broke out and Willingham was the only person to escape the house alive. Soon the fire investigators began to suspect arson and Willingham was arrested. Facing the sad fate of many a poor man, Willingham couldn’t afford to assemble a legal dream team, instead forced to rely on two state appointed defenders. Not long after, based on the damning testimony of the arson investigators along with the testimony of a jailhouse snitch who claimed Willingham had confessed to spraying lighter fluid in the house before intentionally burning up his three young children (and later recanted before recanting his recantation), Willingham was convicted and sentenced to death.
But that wasn’t quite the end of the story. It turns out that arson investigation in Texas prior to 1992 was considered to be an art form, not a science, with knowledge handed down from investigator to investigator over the years. Willingham was convicted based on the testimony of arson investigators, probably given in good faith, operating on what was on the verge of being completely outdated and mostly inaccurate theories. Manuel Vasquez, one of the state’s leading arson investigators at the time, was known for spouting maxims such as “The fire tells the story. I am just the interpreter.” Most of the arson evidence used to gain the conviction was later shown to be inaccurate. For example, at that time it was believed that “crazed glass,” glass with spider-web like cracks through it, could only be caused by intense heat from an accelerant-induced fire. But it turns out that it’s caused by sudden cooling of hot glass brought on by cold water being sprayed on the windows by the firefighters battling the flames. There are countless other examples.
Shortly before Willingham’s execution, appeals attorney Walter Reaves got in touch with Dr. Gerald Hurst, a respected fire expert and asked him to review the case. He quickly concluded that there was no case for arson and agreed to prepare a report with his findings, which was rushed to the Governor’s office in an attempt to secure a thirty day reprieve. But the reprieve didn’t come; Reaves got a call from a member of Perry’s staff that the report had been received and the Governor’s office saw no reason to act. For a very detailed piece on the crime, trial, execution and aftermath I highly recommend reading David Grann’s article in the New Yorker:
What Incendiary: The Willingham Case does, and extremely well, is tell this story in a compelling, relatively unbiased manner. While the majority of screen time is given to those who feel the case was mishandled, a range of people involved in the case are interviewed and express varying views. David Martin, the original defense attorney, speaks in depth about his passionate belief that Willingham was guilty. Footage is included of a press conference by Willingham’s ex-wife where she claims that he confessed to her that he was guilty shortly before his execution. In fact, I came away from the documentary extremely disturbed by the state’s actions without being necessarily convinced that Willingham was innocent. It’s possible that he did commit the crime but without a doubt there’s not sufficient evidence to prove it.
Where the film has the biggest impact is showing the government’s inadequate and disturbing response when faced with tough questions. The Texas Forensic Science Commission decided to take a look at the case after sufficient questions were raised and had Dr. Craig Beyler, an independent fire expert, review the case and write a report, a report which wound up being in agreement with Dr. Hurst’s earlier findings. Just days before the Commission was set to meet with Dr. Beyler in person, and during the thick of Gov. Perry’s re-election bid, Commission Chairman Sam Bassett was called by Perry’s office and told that he was being replaced (along with two other commission members) and the meeting would not be held.
There is ample footage of Perry’s hand-picked replacement, John Bradley, to make your skin crawl. He’s everything a public official shouldn’t be: arrogant, manipulative, secretive, combative and evasive. Likewise, the well-chosen shots of Perry speaking about the case show a man who seems to not take seriously his role in the death penalty process. One of the most touching moments in the film comes when you hear Sam Bassett choke up when sharing his concerns about the possibility that an innocent man may have been executed and his conviction that the State should not be afraid of the truth. The contrast between Bassett’s attitude and that of Perry and Bradley is stunning.
Sadly, in my opinion, Willingham has become the poster child for those that are seeking to end the death penalty, a kind of pawn in their game. I understand why that is but nothing shuts down dialogue like an obvious agenda. This film does a great job of simply telling Willingham’s story without preaching about the death penalty itself. This is a film that should be mandatory viewing for all Texans, for all Americans, regardless of their view on the death penalty. This film should be seen for the sake of Cameron Todd Willingham’s memory and reputation. Willingham was not a good guy. He hit his wife. He had plenty of flaws. But that’s not why he was executed. He was executed for murdering his own children. It’s hard to imagine a worse fate than having your young children burn up in a house fire that you escape. But there are worse fates, like being falsely accused of intentionally setting the fire to murder your children and spending twelve years on death row before receiving a lethal injection. That’s a fate that no person should have to endure. And I’m convinced that the vast majority of Americans would agree with that sentiment.