Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Listening to Fire: Incendiary

Fire is a truly medieval form of execution. To employ it as a means of killing children is absolutely unthinkable, so it is not surprising when a Texas court sentenced Cameron Todd Willingham to death after he was convicted of killing his three small daughters with a crude arson fire. Had he been tried in Maine they might have reinstated the death penalty for him, despite having abolished it in 1887. Yet, capital punishment is often considered a distraction in the Willingham case. Instead, it is dubious fire investigation techniques that fall first and foremost into the crosshairs of Steve Mims & Joe Bailey Jr.’s muckraking doc, Incendiary: the Willingham Case (trailer here), which opens this Friday at the IFC Center.

By general consensus, Willingham was a reasonably loving parent, but an abusive husband and a thoroughly unlikable human being. According to Texas Fire Marshals Manny Vasquez and Doug Fogg, the fire that killed his daughters bore all the classic hallmarks of arson—and Willingham seemed to be the only one around to set it.

Unfortunately, the fire investigators were employing a folksy science roughly on par with the Farmer’s Almanac to make their determinations. In the years following, investigators would be required to follow more scientifically sound investigation criteria, but for Willingham the die was cast. Tried, convicted, and executed, his can only be a case of posthumous exoneration.

As fate would have, Rick Perry was governor at the time of Willingham’s execution, so Incendiary frequently expresses consternation that he did not leap to join the defense team’s efforts. However, when you have two state fire investigators and the trial defense’s own expert witness agreeing it was arson, it is not exactly scandalous that he let Willingham’s execution proceed unimpeded.

The real issue of Incendiary ought to be the way “folklore” used to dominate arson investigations. Evidently, Vasquez and Fogg talked up a lot of old school hocus-pocus on the stand about “listening to the fire” and the like. However, despite formally adopting more rational standards and practices, their fire investigators union still stands by their work in the Willingham case. One really wants to hear them attempt to defend their investigation, so their absence from the film is vexing.

Frankly, Incendiary does not definitively establish Willingham’s innocence, even (to its credit) including some rather nagging reasonable doubts about its reasonable doubts. Sometimes, its expert witnesses can be their own worst enemies as well, as when O.J. Simpson dream team alumnus Barry Scheck totally loses it in front of a suspiciously bureaucratic forensic oversight board. Likewise, it does not help his credibility when incendiary science expert Gerald Hurst goes off on a rant against America’s alleged contempt for anything intellectual.

There is an awful lot of Rick Perry in Incendiary. He is definitely the sizzle to sell the steak. The real arsenic though is found in the state’s traditional arson investigation methodologies and the response to their subsequent evolution. Interesting but distractingly politicized, Incendiary opens this Friday (10/7) in New York at the IFC Center.