After the Death Penalty, Still Fighting for Justice in Incendiary: The Willingham Case


Conservative Texas governor and presidential hopeful Rick Perry comes across as the poster child for unjust death-penalty fanaticism in Incendiary: The Willingham Case, an exhaustive activist documentary about the posthumous efforts to exonerate Cameron Todd Willingham and, in doing so, to transform state forensic procedures. In 1991, abusive heavy-metaler Willingham escaped a house fire that killed his three young daughters and was soon thereafter convicted of arson and put on death row courtesy of a prison snitch’s dubious testimony and fire marshal reports that subsequent experts invalidated as “witchcraft” pseudo-science. Directors Joe Bailey Jr. and Steve Mims provide a thorough primer on fire and flammable accelerants in order to ground their film’s argument (which mirrors that of Barry Scheck’s Innocence Project lawsuit): namely, that Willingham, who received a lethal injection in 2004, was executed on the basis of flawed evidence. Unlike some Willingham defenders, Incendiary cogently separates the anti–death penalty cause from the fact that this case is, fundamentally, one about scientific methods and the necessity to review sentences determined by outdated techniques. If occasionally a tad dry, it’s a doc that, released on the heels of the national Troy Davis outrage, successfully inflames one’s righteous indignation at government-sanctioned anti-intellectualism, even as it leaves slightly open the question of its deceased subject’s actual guilt.