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Frontline: Death by Fire

Cast: Elizabeth Gilbert, John Lentini, Gerald Hurst, Sam Bassett, Michael Hall, Jimmie Hensley, Vicky Prater
Regular airtime: Tuesday, 9pm ET

(PBS; US: 19 Oct 2010)

Every Bit of the Story

“Every town has their bad people in it,” says Vicky Prater. “And bad things happen in every town. So we’re no different from anybody else.” Except that the town where Vicky Prater lives, Corsicana, Texas, convicted an innocent man, who was then executed by the state.


This is the contention of Frontline: Death by Fire, premiering this week on PBS. Investigating the 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham, the program comes to the conclusion voiced by scientific fire analyst John Lentini: “The state of Texas executed a man for a crime that they couldn’t prove was really a crime.” Willingham was convicted of setting a 1991 house fire that killed his three young daughters. Nearly two decades later, his case has come again to the forefront of Texas politics, because Governor Rick Perry—currently running for reelection—had the chance to stay the execution when presented with new evidence. Instead, Perry insisted, following the execution, not only that Willingham deserved to die, but also, “Getting all tied up in the process here is frankly a deflection of what people across this state and this country need to be looking at. This was a bad man.”


On 14 October, a state judge opened a hearing to determine whether Willingham was wrongly executed. Frontline lays out the basic case, beginning with the fire on 23 December 1991. File footage shows Willingham outside the house, upset that his daughters are still inside: “My little girl was crying, ‘Daddy, daddy!,’ he says, “When I woke up, the whole house was in smoke.” At first, his neighbors sympathized with Willingham and his wife Stacy, out shopping at the time. But soon, Death by Fire shows, questions came up. Driving past Corsicana’s working class homes and empty lots with Frontline‘s camera in the passenger seat beside him, police sergeant Jimmie Hensley observes, “You gotta count his actions before and after, you gotta count his actions during the fire and things like that. That makes the whole story, not just a little segment of it. It’s every bit of the story.”


Over time, some bits of the story accumulate. For one thing, the grieving couple attended a darts tournament at Vicky Prater’s bar, organized to raise money for the funerals: Willingham, it seems, had too much to drink: “Todd got too involved in the fun,” asserts Prater. More damning, Willingham had a history with the police. Hensley notes, “He got physical with his wife” (a wife who defended him against the murder charges for 12 years, until she reversed herself.) And, during the 1992 trial, Willingham’s cellmate Johnny Webb testified he had confessed—a story he later recanted, and then, reports Frontline, “He sent another letter [to prosecutors] recanting his recantation. And now, he doesn’t remember any of it.” Webb appears here in shadow. “Maybe I did,” he says, “Somebody put some pressure on somebody to do something to get me out of where I was at.”


While all this testimony concerning Willingham’s character was troubling, the primary problem with the case is the physical evidence and its interpretation by experts. In 1991, fire investigators determined the floor showed burns that looked like an accelerant had been used, specifically, pour patterns in the shape of a pentagram (this last detail was “bolstered” by the fact that Todd kept “satanist” posters on his walls, actually Led Zeppelin and Iron Maiden posters.) As the science of arson investigation developed, however, the interpretation of the Willingham crime scene looked increasingly wrong.


For several years, Death by Fire shows, Willingham’s cause was taken up by Elizabeth Gilbert, a teacher and playwright from Houston who had been randomly selected as a pen pal for this death row inmate. She undertook her own investigation and found serious errors, but her work was cut short when she was in a car accident and paralyzed from the neck down, just before the execution. Still, she wasn’t the only person looking into the case. Death by Fire interviews Lentini as well as Gerald Hurst, two of the four renowned fire investigators on the Innocence Project’s Arson Review Committee (ARC), which reviewed the Willingham case in 2006. Hurst reported that the seeming “pour patterns” were misidentified, based on assumptions too often made “in the old days.” Now, Hurst says, he was shocked that his report was essentially ignored: “I thought that somebody would at least say, ‘Let’s stop and take a look at it.’” In fact, though Hurst’s report reached Rick Perry’s office before the execution, the governor did not act on it, and so Willingham died by lethal injection 17 February 2004.


Since then, the Chicago Tribune published an investigative report in 2006, as did the New Yorker, in 2009, which brought national attention to yet another scientific report on the case, by fire scientist Craig Beyler for the Texas Forensic Science Commission (established in 2005), also asserting there was no evidence of arson. Beyler was set to testify before the nine-member commission in October 2009, but Rick Perry abruptly fired Chairman Sam Bassett and two other members, short-circuiting the process. Following this move, the Innocence Project’s Barry Scheck said, “Governor Perry refuses to face the fact that Texas executed an innocent man on his watch.”


Though Frontline does not hammer this point, the program does help to draw attention to Perry’s part in the case. It’s not news that, as Texas Monthly‘s Michael Hall puts it, “In Texas, you do not get elected by granting stays of execution to people like Cameron Todd Willingham. You do not show any kind of mercy to criminals.” However, it may be news during this 2010 election season, that in 2004, Rick Perry ignored evidence and expert testimony in order to “show no mercy,” then covered it up.

Rating:

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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