Silverdocs 2011: 'Incendiary: The Willingham Case'

Incendiary: The Willingham Case undermines the defense that such illogic is a function of ignorance, and instead suggests it's a matter of deliberate political maneuvering.

Incendiary: The Willingham Case

Director: Steve Mims, Joe Bailey Jr.
Rated: NR
Year: 2011
US date: 2011-06-24 (Silverdocs)
Should Gov. Rick Perry of Texas enter the 2012 presidential race, he would enjoy a strange and remarkable escort -- the irrepressible ghost of Cameron Todd Willingham.

-- Ta-Nehisi Coates

"You have a very heinous crime that was committed by an individual who was described by his own defense attorney as a 'monster.'" This is the story told -- again and again -- by Texas Governor Rick Perry, when asked to explain why his office didn't consider reports by multiple fire investigation experts, reports that showed the arson for which Willingham was convicted and executed was not, in fact, arson. Surely, the deaths of Willingham's three daughters -- aged one through two -- were terrible and tragic, but, say the scientists, they were also accidental. Nevertheless, Perry defines the crime by his knowledge of the criminal, gained from a letter he received from Willingham's lawyer during his August 1992 trial, David Martin. "You have the defender," Perry says, "who wrote me a letter and said this man is a 'monster.'"

There's a pattern here, revealed by Incendiary: The Willingham Case, a pattern of thinking and speaking that's unreasonable on its face. And Perry is only its most visible and daunting embodiment, especially as he considers a run for the presidency in 2012. Other figures in Steve Mims and Joe Bailey Jr.'s documentary who appear equally defensive about their ignorance. "As a nation, we are very anti-intellectual," says Gerald Hurst, "We see a kind of evil associated with intellectuals, they tend to be Communists, undesirable, they have screwy ideas." Hurst has a stake in this particular story, being a Cambridge Ph.D. chemist who submitted one of those reports that Perry's office rejected out of hand. And his point is key in the film, which looks into the Willingham case not just to show -- again -- the scientific consensus that no crime was committed, that Willingham's three daughters died in an accidental fire but also to point out the political uses of the case, by Perry and his cohorts, as well as by anti-death penalty activists.

Screening on 24 and 25 June at Silverdocs, Steve Mims and Joe Bailey Jr.'s elegant, insistent documentary takes Barry Scheck's point of departure on the Willingham case as its own, namely, that "The science used in that case was invalid and unscientific." It's a point of departure taken by a number of other accounts as well, including David Grann's 2009 New Yorker essay, as well as 2010's Frontline: Death By Fire.

Incendiary keeps the evolving science of fire investigation in focus. To do so, it presents a mix of images indicating how the science is suppressed: old footage, court documents, and newspaper headlines indicate the hysteria that swirled around Willingham, under superimposed flames, cut alongside shots of book-lined office and the State Capitol in Austin under scaffolding. The men backed by books tend to sound informed; the politicians and appointees, spinning language. Listening to men like Perry, Hurst says, he's struck by the lack of meaning. "They act as though they can alter a physical reality by the way you express it in words, that you can make a thing true."

Reconsidering such "expressions," Incendiary follows the investigations since Willingham's execution in 2004. It rehearses the litigation in interviews with Hurst and fellow fire expert John Lentini (who says of fire marshal Manuel Vasquez and assistant fire chief Douglas Fogg's first report on the scene, "It's all fabricated, it's all folklore, it's what I call witchcraft"), Willingham's stepmother Eugenia ("They were accusing him at the funeral"), and Elizabeth Gilbert, a writer who befriended Willingham while he was on Death Row. These all make the case pretty much as it was made before, that the "evidence" was misinterpreted and Willingham was convicted primarily on the basis of his "abnormal" behavior at the scene and after the fire ("They expected the witness to behave normally," says Hurst, "when their house is burning down and their children are dying. Nobody behaves normally, there is no norm").

And then the film goes a next step, in an increasingly weird interview with David Martin, the lawyer who called his client a "monster." As a rooster crows in the background, he appears in tight close-up, his face shiny and his hat white. Though he says he has a "strategy" to argue for "not guilty" verdicts in court, and voices a special admiration for Cochran and Bailey's work in the O.J. Simpson case, he also repeatedly asserts Willingham's guilt, sometimes in the abstract ("It's against nature, as we know, for a parent to kill his children"), and sometimes, apparently, because Martin himself was unable to make a case ("You know, if he'd have been black and Vasquez had used the word 'nigger' once in his life, we could have used that, but there wasn’t anything like that we could have used in this case"). Even when Martin admits, "We don’t know what started the fire," he falls back on circular reasoning: "The babies died the most horrible death you can imagine," he points out, then concludes, "They died because Willingham set the house on fire because he was a psychopath and a sociopath."

In Incendiary, this is precisely the illogic that informs the official assessment of the case. The film undermines the defense that such illogic is a function of ignorance, and instead suggests it's a matter of deliberate political maneuvering. One easy target is Perry's appointment to chair the Texas Forensic Science Commission, John Bradley, who kicks the filmmakers out of a meeting in 2010, before he has to let them back in ("after a phone call to the Texas Attorney General's office to report a violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act"). Ensuing maneuvers have ensured that, as of April of this year, Bradley's Commission has come only to a "nebulous end," that is, “The evolution of fire science standards and practices raises the question of whether an obligation exists to reevaluate cases."

Again, this question is actually where Hurst and Lentini begin. And Incendiary contends that even if it's too late to save Todd Willingham, it's also long past time for the officials who ignored this obligation, Rick Perry included, to own up.





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