Cameron Todd Willingham

UT graduate student Josh Haney mingles with Laura Starr at a cocktail party held before the Insidious screening at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum Tuesday night.

Photo Credit: Allen Otto | Daily Texan Staff

The Texas Tribune is using film to shed light on the potential flaws of the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, a man whose guilt has remained in question since his 2004 execution.

“Incendiary: The Willingham Case” is a documentary directed by radio-television-film lecturer Stephen Mims and School of Law alumnus Joe Bailey Jr. that deals with the controversy surrounding the conviction and execution of Cameron Todd Willingham. The Tribune hosted an advance screening and conversation Tuesday about the documentary.

Willingham’s three daughters died in a house fire in Corsicana, Texas in December 1991. He was later convicted of arson and executed in February 2004 based on scientific evidence criticized by experts as outdated.

Evan Smith, CEO and editor-in-chief of The Texas Tribune, said the film is not about the death penalty, but about the forensic science used to convict criminals.

“We all want to be sure that the system works well and that the facts and evidence are true facts,” Smith said.

He said the question of whether the criminal justice system in the state is functioning properly is an important issue for Texans, and the Tribune is eager to spur that conversation.

The Tribune held a panel discussion after the screening with the filmmakers as well as former chairman of the Texas Forensic Science Commission Sam Bassett, former Gov. Mark White and Corsicana City Attorney Terry Jacobson.

Basset said politicians concerned themselves so much with looking bad for the mistakes of the past that they overlooked the need to correct them in the present.

White said the film clearly pointed at the fragility of the criminal justice system and the difficulty it faces adapting to the kind of scientific innovations that revealed the flaws in Willingham’s conviction.

He said that the importance of the case was not whether Willingham was guilty but rather whether the state had been able to legitimately prove him guilty.

The two directors both found personal connections to the case. Mims said the film emerged from a conversation he and Bailey had in Fall 2009 based on a New Yorker article on the case.

“We were hoping to get enough to illustrate the story, to make it visual,” Mims said.

Mims said the team can’t finish the final version of the film until the case concludes that is re-analyzing all the evidence.

Bailey said he and Mims attempted to weave together the politics, science and law surrounding the issue in a dramatic way.

“The film is almost like a battle between my brain and my emotions, and that struggle presents itself throughout the film,” Bailey said.

He said this struggle was key to the emotionally dense case, in which the search for valid scientific evidence can come into conflict with the beliefs of those directly affected.

Students around the country gathered in Austin to advocate an anti-death penalty agenda as part of the Anti-Death Penalty Alternative Spring Break. The weeklong event offered 30 students a crash course in capital punishment education and the opportunity to lobby to end the Texas death penalty system. According to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Texas has executed 466 people since 1982, more than any other state. Virginia has the second-highest number of executions, with 108 since 1976. Because of this record number of executions, the Anti-Death Penalty Alternative Spring Break held a rally at the Capitol in hopes of building on the momentum seen recently by other states. Earlier this month, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn repealed the state’s death penalty law, which made Illinois the 15th state to abolish the law. Participants involved in the Anti-Death Penalty Alternative Spring Break had a full itinerary, which began on March 14 with talks by UT assistant sociology instructor Danielle Dirks and exonerated death-row inmate Stanley Howard. The lecturers educated students on how to become a voice for change. “The death penalty is a very serious topic. Getting together with other informed, interested people is an opportunity to get in on the exciting, social parts of activism,” said women’s and gender studies senior Teri Adams, a member of Campaign to End the Death Penalty Austin. Students also attended a screening at the South By Southwest Film Conference and Festival of the documentary “Incendiary,” which examines the controversial arson case of Cameron Todd Willingham, directed by Steve Mims, a UT Department of Radio-Television-Film lecturer and UT law student Joe Bailey Jr. The documentary investigates the case of Willingham, who was convicted of murder and executed for the deaths by arson of his three young children at their home in Corsicana but maintained his innocence until his death. “We took a scientific approach to this case rather [than] emotional, and hopefully, this film is useful to everybody who watches it,” Mims said. Arson expert Gerald Hurst sent a report that supported Willingham’s innocence to Gov. Rick Perry, but Perry allowed the execution to continue as planned. “Willingham was a monster. He was a guy who murdered his three children, who tried to beat his wife into an abortion so that he wouldn’t have those kids. Person after person has stood up and testified to facts of this case that quite frankly, you all aren’t covering,” Perry said to The Associated Press.

After facing closed doors, statewide traveling and long editing hours, a UT radio-television-film lecturer and UT alumnus are close to the completion of an independent documentary chronicling the aftermath of convicted arsonist Cameron Todd Willingham’s execution.

Joe Bailey Jr. was a postdoctoral fellow at the UT School of Law working on a documentary about a Texas musician when he took Steve Mims’ production course in fall 2009. After a class, Bailey and Mims started discussing death penalty and clemency in Texas. Both later read a September 2009 New Yorker article about Willingham, which spurred Bailey’s interest in filming the repercussions of the execution.

In 1991, a Navarro County jury convicted Willingham of arson and murder for setting fire to his Corsicana home and killing his three daughters while his wife was away. He received a death sentence a year later. Prosecutors offered Willingham life in prison if he admitted he was guilty, but he refused and maintained his innocence. The state executed Willingham in 2004.

Willingham’s surviving relatives have since petitioned to convene a special court of inquiry to remedy his reputation, which they say the case’s media attention tarnished. According to the petition, the prosecutors used flawed science and a now-recanted statement from a former cellmate who said Willingham confessed.

“That information never got to his defense,” Mims said. “There’s a whole level of irresponsibility that made the whole thing the train wreck that it was. We wouldn’t be talking about this at all if that process had played out.”

The film, scheduled to be completed on Dec. 9, concentrates on the forensics behind Willingham’s conviction, but also includes the legal and political aspects of its course of action.

“The justice-gone-wrong story had been done and been done very well,” Bailey said. “The issue film of wrongful execution had played itself out in our culture over and over again, so what we thought was interesting was the science, folklore and emotion. It’s not often you seen that in an animated matter of life and death.”

Mims said he and Bailey tried not to have an ax to grind and to make the film an examination of the cracks in the criminal justice system that contributed to Willingham’s execution.

“The thing that’s reassuring about it is that there are only a few things that could have been done differently that would make what happened to Willingham not happen any more,” he said.

Mims said one of the challenges they faced was piecing the scenes together in a way that made the science entertaining.

“It’s like a gigantic jigsaw puzzle,” Mims said. “The job of trying to get it down to — right now, it’s 108 minutes — has been very difficult. It’s a balancing act to try to make it definitive so people can really understand the science, which in this case is really important, and still make it watchable and reputable.”

Students in RTF lecturer John Pierson’s advanced producing class saw parts of the film about three times throughout the semester. After critiquing the film, the students must now take on publicity for the film. Ivete Lucas, an RTF graduate student, said the filmmakers approached the documentary in an unusual manner by concentrating on the science and the integrity of the criminal justice system.

“When we think of science movies, we think they’re going to be impenetrable,” Lucas said. “The filmmakers did a very good job of illustrating the concepts the scientists were trying to explain, and the two main scientists behind the investigation were interesting because they had different personalities. The film was entertaining because of
these characters.”