SXSW Film: Incendiary: The Willingham Case

Incendiary: The Willingham Case is a documentary about the case of Cameron Todd Willingham who was convicted of arson and the murder of his three children from smoke inhalation in 1991 in Corsicana, Texas.  He was sentenced to death in the state of Texas and executed in 2004.  Throughout his trial and subsequent incarceration, Willingham maintained his innocence.

There is obviously a significant jump in the advancement of forensic science between 1991 and 2011.  There are several cases that have been dismissed because DNA analysis cleared someone of a crime that they were originally convicted of committing.  In the Willingham case, it is not a crime based on DNA, but relies entirely on fire science to determine whether Willingham set fire to his house on purpose.  Like DNA analysis, fire science has advanced as well.  Fire science used to be an art rather than a science.  Its concepts, instructions, and conclusions were passed from one fire investigator to another.

The general scope of the documentary is to present the evidence that proves that Willingham was innocent.  There are two main experts in the field of fire investigation that were utilized to help with the Willingham case: Dr. Gerald Hurst, PhD and John Lentini,CFEI, F-ABC.  Both experts present the evidence, what went wrong, and the mistaken conclusions the original fire investigators made.  The evidence is provided to the audience in a very detailed way.  There is no refuting what is presented in the film.  Unfortunately, the information is too detailed and lengthy for the general movie-going audience.  I waited for the film to move on to another aspect of the case, but it seemed like it lingered for a very long time on the fire evidence.

Willingham very obviously had a bad defense attorney, David Martin, who did not believe in his innocence and it seemed like he did not defend him to the best of his abilities.   I do not know why Martin agreed to be interviewed for the film because it seemed that every time he opened his mouth, he dug a bigger hole for himself.  While Willingham was still alive, he should have been granted a new trial just based on the obvious incompetence of his lawyer.

Many people will already know about the Innocence Project, the organization that works on behalf of wrongly convicted people to prove their innocence.  The organization is more known for getting people out of prison by proving their innocence using DNA tests.  They are also involved reforming the criminal justice system so that innocent people are not wrongly convicted of crimes.  Barry Scheck and the Innocence Project are featured in this film as they add to the collective voice to prove Willingham’s innocence.

One part of this film that may anger people is how politics is wrapped up in this case.  The governor of Texas, Rick Perry, is not portrayed in a positive light.  He first did not allow even a stay before Willingham was executed to fully look over the irrefutable evidence that was provided to him.  He continued to block or create setbacks for any sort of investigation or committee that looked into the Willingham case.

The film wraps up with posthumous appeal by family members to have Willingham’s name cleared and his reputation restored.  In this appeal, both fire experts testified and several noted attorneys spoke on Willingham’s behalf.

Incendiary: The Willingham Case is successful in presenting evidence and convincing the audience that Willingham was innocent, or at the very least, needed a new trial.  However, the runtime (1 hour 44 minutes) is long and the film is too detailed with presenting the fire evidence.  At the conclusion of the documentary, there is an unfinished feeling because the appeal was still in progress and the judge had not ruled in either way.  The documentary needs editing and a definitive conclusion at the end to give the general audience a more fulfilling documentary experience.

I give Incendiary: The Willingham Case 3 “Governor Rick Perrys” out of 5.

by Sarah Ksiazek

About Sarah Ksiazek

Sarah is a Zookeeper extraordinaire who writes, edits, and is the resident trailer addict for Lost in Reviews. Do not underestimate her snobbery when it comes to trailers. She also owns/runs The Host Movie News which is a fan site for The Host movie adaptation.

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