Sunday, March 20, 2011

TAVP at SXSW: A Review of Incendiary: The Willingham Case

TAVP at SXSW: A Review of Incendiary: The Willingham Case
by Maurice Chammah

I often forget in the course of the work we do that narratives surrounding the death penalty are not always the stories of those involved as direct participants. A unique set of famous cases take on a cultural life more a matter popular folklore than legal or social history. Many remember Gary Gilmore not for himself or the direct witnesses to his life, but rather for Tommy Lee Jones' depiction of him in the film The Executioner's Song. Randall Dale Adams shows up in the documentary about his wrongful conviction, Errol Morris' The Thin Blue Line, but in that film Adams becomes an almost fictionalized protagonist, journeying through the fallibility of eyewitness testimony, the problems associated with the investigation of murder cases, and the corruption of Dallas' law enforcement. Karla Faye Tucker's life, in the media, has become the mythic story of competing forces of Born Again mercy and distrustful retribution. The cultural phenomenon fuels the story, invents holy grails (justice, innocence, madness, the death penalty itself), and follows the persona of the convicted through their trials and tribulations.

A similar process, in which the cultural life of a case is creating a story of its own, is evident in the public attention recently paid to the case of Cameron Todd Willingham. David Grann's New Yorker story in 2009 about his possible innocence spawned a Frontline special in 2010, and now at SXSW 2011 one can see the movie version of the "story," which is now familiar; Willingham was convicted and executed for lighting the house fire that killed his three children. Shortly before his death numerous sources challenged his guilt, arguing that the investigation that made the fire seem intentional was founded on faulty, pseudoscientific techniques. Governor Rick Perry sat on his hands, and now Willingham has become the focal point of the anti-death penalty movement's attempts to find a case of an innocent man killed by the State, thus laying bare the flaws of the legal system and discrediting it forever. Before this national attention, Willingham was a huge source of controversy in the limited worlds of forensic science, capital punishment, and exoneration, but only now has it entered a space in which it is, like the cases mentioned above, about more than just itself.

In the new film Incendiary: The Willingham Case, Willingham's family members are seldom, if ever, featured narrators. They are the subject of countless shots as they come in and out of hearings, meetings, and press mobs, but aside from their public statements in these contexts, they are never the story we hear. Instead, directors Joe Bailey Jr. and Steve Mims decide to make Willingham a battle of science vs. the law, teasing out the knots that these two fields tend to make when an adversarial system, in which lawyers battle with competing possibilities for truth, tries to use modern science, a system that is simply about finding the truth.

In the Willingham case, the two competing theories are the one that originally convicted Willingham, that he intentionally set fire to his house in order to murder his three children, and the now widely believed theory that it was an accidental fire. The film's narrative is largely told by Gerald Hurst and Joe Lentini, the two fire experts who researched the case closely and deemed it accidental. Warmly lit in their offices, they make the perfect one two punch of credibility, Lentini sporting a forest-ranger mustache and a thick, almost fireman build, and Hurst, who at one point tells a judge he has been working with fire for fifty years, conveys equal parts mad scientist and prophet (see photo above).

Their account of faulty science has surprising narrative drive, interjected clips of fire, smoke, documents, and charred debris. This is all set against David Martin, Willingham's original trial lawyer, who still to this day believes in his guilt and is interviewed in his barn, with the sounds of roosters and goats chiming in to pepper his folksy ethos with a strange mix of credibility and pity.

We then get an extended account of the forensic science committee meetings in which John Bradley systematically slithers his way out of having to get anything done. It is a funny little side story, and Mims and Bailey do a great job of balancing the audience's contempt a few very funny moments, adding levity to a story that, surprisingly enough, does well without the direct comedy. Nevertheless, it comes at just the right moment in the emotional arc.

By far the most powerful part of the film is the last twenty minutes, in which Mims and Bailey cut back and forth between a hearing held in Austin at which Hurst testifies about the science that proves Willingham's innocence and an impromptu press conference on the street out front, in which Willingham's then wife and the mother of the children makes a public statement claiming he admitted guilt to her. This is followed by Martin, who gets to close the film, and claims he believes in Willingham's guilt based on conversations protected under attorney-client privilege.

At that point, Science, the protagonist of the film thus far much more than Willingham, ceases to be the beacon of credibility Mims and Bailey have set up with such seeming confidence. When it matters most, we are left with confusion, with a desire to know but an inability to trust any of the versions of the story we have been told. At this point, Lentini himself admits that while it is incredibly easy to prove arson with a concocted tale of intent, it is incredibly difficult to disprove arson because fires can start in so many different ways.

Mims and Bailey have made a penetrating narrative out of a case that has become in so many other contexts an emotionally charged, political or social commentary. Tossing away the desire to make a political statement (and even including some implicit condemnations of the anti-death penalty movement's "hijacking" of the case), they present a story that simply asks more questions laced with the kind of virtuosic editing Errol Morris made famous, and for that reason will likely stay with viewers much longer than the countless activist films that make up the bulk of cinematic work on capital punishment and the law.