Twenty years after a house fire killed three little girls in Texas, and seven years after their father was executed by lethal injection for murder by arson, the case of Cameron Todd Willingham is still fiercely debated — by legal experts, politicians and, perhaps most crucially, scientists. It was the subject of a 2009 investigative report in the New Yorker that in turn sparked the new documentary "Incendiary," alarming viewing for anyone who cares about the American justice system.
Filmmakers Steve Mims and Joe Bailey Jr. take an unusual slant, one that can be as unsatisfying as it is compelling. For a good portion of the film's running time they focus on forensics — specifically, fire dynamics and burn patterns — providing only the barest basics about the convicted man (no saint) and his marriage (troubled). But theirs is an examination of process, not personality. (Nonetheless, the personalities of people involved in the case come through loud and clear.) Forensics are at the heart of the Willingham case: Breakthroughs in fire investigation exposed the junk science that put him on death row.
The deck was stacked against Willingham, whose Led Zeppelin posters were considered incriminating evidence and whose defense attorney was one of the people most convinced of his guilt. Gov. Rick Perry, denying a 30-day reprieve for the condemned man, saw only anti-death-penalty propaganda in the testimony of leading scientists, who found no evidence of arson.
As they follow Innocence Project involvement in the matter, through July of this year, the filmmakers don't suggest they've uncovered all the answers. Their narrative ends on a hauntingly open-ended note.
"Incendiary: The Willingham Case." No MPAA rating. Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes. At Laemmle's Sunset 5, West Hollywood.