Documentary based on Texas arson case premieres

By Sommer Ingram
Associated Press / March 12, 2011

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

AUSTIN, Texas—On the heels of fresh controversy surrounding the Texas Forensic Commission, directors Steve Mims and Joe Bailey, Jr. premiered their documentary Saturday at South by Southwest investigating the scientific and political storm behind Texas' execution of a possibly innocent man.

INCENDIARY: The Willingham Case tells the haunting story of Cameron Todd Willingham, a man executed for setting the fire to his house that killed his three daughters in 1991.

It also documents the controversial Texas Forensic Science Commission, where Willingham's name has become an inflammatory theme.

A key struggle between science and folklore is prevalent in this film that combines the mystique of scientific investigation, political drama and potential murder.

Through interviews with fire experts, legal experts and court footage, the directors explore the possibility that the science behind Willingham's conviction was shoddy and unreliable, yet ultimately led to a man's death.

The directors contend the fire investigators on Willingham's case considered their profession to be more of an art than a science, and based their conclusions on what current fire experts call folklore. Whether Willingham was guilty or innocent wasn't the point of the documentary, the filmmakers said, but rather it was to present the different sides of the case and allow the audience to indulge in the mystery.

"I do have a serious problem with the manner in which he was convicted," Bailey said. "But we were more interested in the mystery this case created and the real facts. What we do know is what we tried to put on film."

Two of the foremost fire experts in the country reviewed the evidence and found that initial fire investigators had ignored signs that the fire could have been accidental and crafted a faulty theory to make their arson case.

Despite attempts by Dr. Gerald Hurst, an acclaimed scientist and fire expert, to discredit the evidence of arson, Willingham was executed in 2004.

The film premieres amids new controversy surrounding the Texas Forensic Science Commission, which is charged with investigating the case. Chairman John Bradley delayed consideration of the case for months, sparking accusations of political motivation and a government cover-up.

The documentary showed Bradley using all of the procedural maneuvering he could to stifle public input, cut off debate and keep the committee's deliberations out of the public eye.

He now faces firm opposition in the Texas Senate for confirmation.

Critics of Republican Gov. Rick Perry have suggested the governor used his political power to bring the investigation into the case to a standstill.

After rejecting the mounting evidence that Willingham was innocent in 2004, Perry dismantled the Texas Forensic Commission just days before it was set to take up the investigation. When it was reassembled, John Bradley was the new chairman.

The directors sprinkled clips from Perry's public comments about the case throughout the documentary. The governor has never wavered on his decision, repeatedly calling Willingham a monster and standing by the Texas criminal justice system.

Bailey said they attempted to contact the governor's office for an interview, but never got a response.

The Willingham case has prompted fear about more wrongful convictions in arson cases. Activists have long hoped this case could be used to highlight faulty arson evidence and as a call to reform methods of forensic science.

Judge Charles Baird, the judge who conducted a court of inquiry into Willingham's case, attended the premiere Saturday. He said the directors did a good job of explaining the evolution of the scientific method of arson investigation and providing a comprehensive story for viewers.

"I hope the public will learn from this that a verdict is just a snapshot of the culmination of evidence in a case," Baird said. "I hope that in the future if the science relied on in a case is faulty, the courts are open to correct that and we wouldn't have any question of whether an innocent person was put to death."

Movie listings search

Movie times  Globe review archive