The Willingham Case, Rick Perry and the Death Penalty in Texas

With Governor Rick Perry throwing his proverbial hat into the race for Republican presidential nominee, Texas has been thrust into the national spotlight.  I wish I could say the country is learning favorably about the Lone Star State; as a native Texan it’s a dear place to me.  However, what the nation has been reading about–from local papers such as the Austin Chronicle to national and international publications like the New York Times and CNN–is Perry’s record on the death penalty.

According to the Austin Chronicle, “Perry stands in the annals of history as the governor who has presided over the most executions during the modern era of the death penalty…Perry has presided over 235 [executions].”  As technology and science have given us more answers than ever before, the question being asked more and more is:  Were any of those innocent lives?

Incendiary: The Willingham Case is a documentary film and collaboration between Joe Bailey, Jr. and Steve Mims.  The documentary is currently screening at Violet Crown Cinema, where Bailey and Mims were available after opening weekend screenings to discuss the film and answer questions.  The idea for the film came to Bailey after reading the September 7, 2009 New Yorker article by David Grann, “Trial by Fire: Did Texas Execute an Innocent Man?”.  Bailey, a film student of Mims’, approached him with the idea for a documentary.

Incendiary follows the story of Cameron Todd Willingham, a man convicted of murdering his three young daughters by means of arson on December 23, 1991 in Corsicana, Texas.  Through a series of interviews and meeting footage, Bailey and Mims weave the complicated tale of the Willingham case. Being young and broke, Willingham was provided with a court-appointed attorneys, David Martin, who readily admits to the camera that he believed his client to be guilty.

The evidence in the case was collected by arson experts, Assistant Fire Chief Douglass Fogg and Deputy Fire Marshal Manuel Vasquez.  The two inspected the scene and believed all of the evidence pointed to arson.  But did it?  According to Grann’s article, Vasquez believed he’d never been wrong on a case despite the fact that each case he worked on seemed to point to arson.  With Vasquez and Fogg’s trial testimony as well as the findings of the arson investigator hired by the defense, Willingham was found guilty and sentenced to death.

Later, Willingham found an unlikely ally in Elizabeth Gilbert, a single parent, teacher and playwright.  Throughout her Incendiary interviews, Gilbert repeats Willingham’s testament of his own innocence. After hearing that the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear his case, Willingham found out he was to be executed on February 17, 2004. Perry declined a stay of execution or clemency.

Incendiary isn’t about persuading it’s viewers on the death penalty one way or another.  Instead, it is an articulate look at the facts surrounding one specific death row case, that of Cameron Todd Willingham.

Willingham and Perry

Mims and Bailey do not set out to paint a pretty portrait of Willingham, who quite frankly seems to have been a bit of bastard in his younger years.  They do, however, look at the Texas judicial system and how much politics seems to have played a role in this case as well as the role science should play in criminal cases. Incendiary is an incredibly well done documentary about a complicated case, politically and morally.  I urge all who can to see it and formulate their own opinions.

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  1. Katy Crocker says:

    Caitlyn, your article has me very excited to see this film.

  2. TimB says:

    Assistant Fire Chief Douglass Fogg and Deputy Fire Marshal Manuel Vasquez were not “arson experts” just poorly trained arson investigators.

    Had Willingham’s defense lawyers just asked them what experiments had been used to prove their 20 arson indicators only occurred in accelerant fires, he could have demolished their case for arson. They wouldn’t have had a clue how to answer.