Documentary exposes ugly truths of capital punishment in Perry’s Texas
Steve Mims and Joe Bailey, Jr., the directors of a new documentary about a potentially innocent man executed in Texas under Gov. Rick Perry, say that they “feel validated” by recent events, like the execution of Troy Davis and voters’ enthusiastic reaction to Perry’s death penalty record, “because the things that we thought were important, that were important to us, are now important to many more people.”
Thankfully, the filmmakers behind “Incendiary: The Willingham Case” tell their story with exceptional tenacity, laying out the disturbing details of a house fire that killed three children, led to a man’s conviction and execution, and ultimately sparked what appears to be a cover-up at the highest level of Texas’s government.
“Coming into the project, I had really no strong opinions about the death penalty,” Bailey, Jr. explained. “On the one hand, philosophically, I can see my values don’t really jive with it. But emotionally and personally, I have a hard time setting aside my emotions and I feel like there are cases where I’d like that punishment to be carried out.”
Their film reflects this attitude. Walking the line between advocacy and reporting, “Incendiary” strikes a solidly objective balance, taking into account all the evidence on both sides of the case, carefully deconstructing each bit of information in terms that are easily understood.
“I guess, having that struggle about [the death penalty], I never developed a hard opinion about it,” Bailey added. “But as this case unfolded, who knows how many others are similarly dubious? I think that if we can have full confidence in the system, it’s not something I’d be terribly uncomfortable with, but I’m afraid we cannot have that confidence.”
The result is a film that is captivating, concise and utterly disturbing. It seeks to undermine the prosecution’s case and shows how a man was put to death based upon little legitimate physical evidence. But it’s the details about what happened after, the seeming cover-up, the disdainful treatment of modern science and Perry’s continued resoluteness on capital punishment despite all the facts, that will really stick with viewers.
The results of the Willingham case are still widely debated, even in Texas. After his execution in 2004, questions of whether Willingham actually burned his house down and killed his children have persisted, because the fire investigators in 1992 used methods now determined to be junk science. One expert even called them “more akin to witchcraft.”
All of that was well known to defense attorneys in the months leading up to Willingham’s execution. They filed an expert report with Gov. Perry’s office, begging for a 30 day delay to allow more experts to weigh in, but were denied. Willingham was executed on Feb. 17, 2004.
Equipped with a knowledge of modern scientific fire investigation, reporter David Grann reviewed the case for The New Yorker in 2009. His story raised significant questions as to whether the evidence against Willingham was accurate, inspiring other writers, and the directors of “Incendiary,” to probe the issue further.
One of those allies, John Bradley, the district attorney for Williamson County, was adamant that the commission should not discuss whether the science of fire investigation had changed between 1992 and 2004. He succeeded in effectively shutting down the commission’s investigation into the Willingham case, heading off a scandal for Perry in the midst of a pitched re-election battle.
Bradley, however, caused so much of an outcry by commission members that even Texas Republicans couldn’t stomach it, and he was not confirmed by the Texas Senate to continue as chair of the commission. Nevertheless, he appears to have done his job, and earlier this month Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott (R) prohibited the commission from investigating any case prior to Sept. 2005, ending once and for all the official inquiry into the Willingham case.
“We don’t have any agenda,” explained Bailey, Jr. “We don’t want to get into all that. We don’t know what the impact [of this film] will be… But I hope that it will bring people’s attention to this case and other cases like it.”
“Incendiary: The Willingham Case” is a documentary that will undoubtedly be seen by those interested in capital punishment in general and the Willingham case in particular. But perhaps even moreso, it may go down as a piece of cinema that should be required viewing for anyone who’s pondering a vote for Rick Perry.
“Incendiary: The Willingham Case” opens in Austin, Texas today, Washington, D.C. on Sept. 30, and New York City on Oct. 7. View the trailer below.
Photo: Flickr user eschipul.