Rick Perry’s campaign is in enough trouble as it is, but this film about the Cameron Todd Willingham case will hardly help the cause. Willingham was a Texas man—a rather unpleasant fellow, by all accounts—who was convicted of setting a house fire in which his three young children died, and executed. But before he was put to death, serious scientific questions were raised about whether the fire was arson at all, or merely a terrible accident. Barry Scheck’s Innocence Project got involved, as well as Dr. Gerald Hurst, perhaps the world’s foremost expert on fire investigation; and the case became a cause celebre that helped confirm the fallaciousness of the methods of determining arson that had long been in use—and were at the basis of the Willingham case. And as doubts were generated, Willingham was also embraced by the anti-death penalty movement.
Perry was drawn into the matter because he was governor at the time of Willingham’s execution, and dismissed appeals for a stay in the light of the arguments about it. But this picture isn’t so much about the original trial—though Willingham’s defense lawyer David Martin, a good ol’ boy wearing a cowboy hat who talks at length about it and expresses absolute confidence in his client’s guilt, and others raise objections to both the forensic evidence and the credibility of the jailhouse snitch to whom Willingham supposedly confessed but who later recanted. (When Martin is pressed on his opinion, he coyly cites attorney-client privilege in refusing to explain.)
“Incendiary” deals more with the special panel that Texas set up to investigate suspect convictions after revelations of misconduct in the Houston crime lab. When the committee was about to take up the Willingham case and hear from Dr. Hurst, Perry—then in the middle of a difficult primary race against popular Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson—abruptly dismissed three of its members and appointed new ones, including a hard-nosed prosecutor as chairman. He took the lead in circumscribing the committee’s investigation, delaying its work, excluding testimony he deemed irrelevant and making procedural changes to insure its deliberations would be conducted behind closed doors. Later, a Texas high-court judge shuts down a legal proceeding on the Willingham matter when it’s at point of reaching a conclusion.
Many observers believed that Perry had deliberately engineered a whitewash of a potential political embarrassment, and archival footage of him summarily dismissing those he refers to as “so-called experts.” And whatever your feelings about Willingham’s guilt or innocence, the overarching issue—as Hurst emphasizes in his interview segments—is how one can so casually ignore scientific fact in favor of pure opinion, especially when a man’s life is at stake.
Steve Mims and Joe Bailey, Jr., who made the film, don’t reach a conclusion about the Willingham case, allowing those on both side (including the man’s wife, who claims he confessed his guilt to her just before his execution) to state their views at length. But the film certainly raises enough questions to suggest that a miscarriage of justice occurred, and that Perry lacks the judgment and integrity to hold his current office, let alone any higher one. It’s a formally conventional but provocative, and perhaps even important, piece of non-fiction pleading, worthy of being on a doubke bill with another piece of Texana, Errol Morris’ “The Thin Blue Line.”