While opponents of capital punishment point to the growing number of exonerated prisoners as evidence of its fallibility, supporters can claim the same as proof the system works: Mistakes happen, but sooner or later, they’re rooted out. But in the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, there’s no turning back the clock. In the 2009 New Yorker article “Trial By Fire,” David Grann meticulously laid out a compelling case that the crime for which Willingham was executed in Texas in 2004—the death by fire of his three young daughters—never even occurred. Evidence that the fire was intentionally set came from since-discredited investigative techniques that experts now say are closer to folklore than science.
Given the possibility that Willingham could be the first executed inmate to be proved innocent postmortem, it’s too bad that Steve Mims and Joe Bailey, Jr.’s documentary Incendiary doesn’t reach more effectively beyond those who already share its assumptions. Although the movie finally acquires some dramatic tension when it moves onto recent attempts to reexamine the case, it opens with a giant chunk of forensic science that would put all but the most devout advocate to sleep. The movie’s most fascinating character is Dr. Gerald Hurst, an eccentric and by all accounts brilliant chemist who designed incendiary devices for the U.S. military during the Vietnam War and now lends his services in court free of charge. The story of how Hurst went from agent of death to death-row advocate seems eminently worth telling; instead, it's just one of many opportunities the film misses.
Incendiary stirs up real anger when the scene shifts to 2010, as the newly convened Texas Forensic Science Commission prepares to hear a report from a nationally renowned expert on the validity of the science used to convict Willingham. Days before the hearing, governor Rick Perry, who also denied Willingham’s petition for clemency, guts the commission, replacing several members with his political allies and sending the investigation into legal limbo. Considering Texas’ bottomless appetite for rough justice, Perry’s actions aren’t surprising, but the equanimity with which he impedes the process, all while claiming that unspecified others have hijacked it for political gain, ought to dismantle any of his hopes for higher office. Unfortunately, what Willingham’s case demonstrates most forcefully is that people see what they want to see, and that willful blindness is hardly unique to fire investigators. In an ideal world, Incendiary would transgress those built-in biases, but it’s more likely to confirm that facts alone are insufficient to turn the tide.