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New Documentary Takes On Willingham Case

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The Cameron Todd Willingham story has been chronicled—in print, on television, and now on film—more times than I can count. You probably know the basics: Willingham was convicted and sentenced to death for starting the 1991 house fire that killed his three daughters. The physical evidence of arson that convicted him later turned out to be wrong, though the State of Texas executed him anyway. Willingham went to his death claiming his innocence, and many people believe him. We likely will never know the truth.

As I’ve written many times, the import of the case lies in what it can teach us about fire science and the flawed field of arson investigation. Yet many of the print stories and television features on Willingham—including in-depth treatments by ABC’s “Nightline” and PBS’s “Frontline”—have focused more whether Willingham was guilty or innocent, whether he beat his wife, whether he loved his kids, whether he received a fair trial, whether his case would impact the death penalty debate. Media coverage also centered on the political impact of the case for Gov. Rick Perry, who denied Willingham’s last-minute request for a 30-day stay of execution. These are all interesting angles. But too often, the most important part of the story—the science—has gotten lost.   

That’s why filmmakers Steve Mims and Joe Bailey Jr. are to be commended. Their new documentary on the Willingham case—Incendiary—which premiered this week at the South By Southwest film festival, focuses largely on the science.  

In fact, the first hour of the film largely consists of two prominent fire scientists—Gerald Hurst and John Lentini—explaining in detail why the blaze was likely accidental and why the arson evidence that convicted Willingham was—in the words of one lawyer interviewed in the film—”crap.”

I found it riveting. I should confess my bias: I’ve been fascinated with fire science and the field of arson investigation since 2007. In 2009, I wrote a four-part series on how outdated arson evidence has wrongly convicted hundreds of people in Texas. I investigated the cases of three men—Curtis Severns, Alfredo Guardiola and Ed Graf—whose arson convictions appeared flawed. (All three remain in prison, by the way.) I’ve spent many hours listening rapt to Hurst and Lentini talk about fire science,

I’ll concede that not everyone probably finds this stuff as fascinating as I do. But Hurst and Lentini are undeniably compelling. They’re both brilliant and have a knack for explaining the complexities of fire science in ways that non-science majors like myself can understand. I hope that viewers of this film walkout with a greater understanding of why the physical evidence in Willingham’s case was literally laughable, and  with a better idea of how so many innocent people could be wrongly convicted of arson. In that sense, Mims’ and Bailey’s decision to grant these scientists so much screen time is itself a public service.   

The other character who stars in the film is John Bradley. The surly prosecutor chairs the Texas Forensic Science Commission. Mims and Bailey devote significant time to chronicling the commission’s investigation into the Willingham case. They attended every commission meeting in 2010, and the film features testy exchanges between Bradley and nearly everyone—including Barry Scheck, the Innocence Project co-founder who Bradley sneeringly refers to as that “lawyer from New York,” fellow commissioners, the press, and even the filmmakers. At one hearing, Bradley ejects them from the commission’s meeting room, an apparent violation of the state’s Open Meetings Act.

The film ably chronicles how Bradley stalled the Willingham investigation until after Gov. Rick Perry had won the GOP primary and general election. Even for someone who followed the developments closely, it’s stunning to see all his machinations pieced together in a single telling.

But I suspect viewers will be more surprised by Bradley’s behavior at commission meetings. I’ve never seen a public servant badger people like Bradley does. For me, the frustrating part of covering the Forensic Science Commission is it’s nearly impossible to truly capture Bradley’s performances in print. You just have to witness the man in action. Anyone who sees this film will immediately understand why it appears the Texas Senate won’t confirm Bradley’s appointment, which would force him off the commission.

The film has a blockbuster ending. And I’ll give you a spoiler alert—if you don’t want to know the ending, stop reading now.

The final scene features David Martin, who was Willingham’s defense attorney at the original trial. Martin is a colorful quote—he supplies some of the best lines in the film—who has long contended in media interviews that his client was guilty. In the last scene, Bailey asks Martin if there’s any other reason, besides the evidence in the case, why he believes so strongly in Willingham’s guilt. There might be, Martin responds, but that involves attorney-client privilege.

The clear insinuation is that Willingham confessed his guilt to Martin during the 1992 trial.

I had never heard that tidbit before, and I have no idea what to make of it. Is Martin telling the truth? Or is he simply posturing?

These are questions—like so much of the Willingham case—we may never have answers for.

Dave Mann has been with the Observer since 2003. Before that, he worked as a reporter in Fort Worth and Washington, D.C. He was born and raised in Philadelphia. He thinks border collies are the world’s greatest dogs, and believes in the nourishing powers of pickup basketball.