The death penalty and circumstantial cases
April 29, 2012
I first learned about the case of Cameron Todd Willingham last year when I watched Frontline: Death by Fire on Netflix. I was hesitant to even watch it because if I know ahead of time children are going to die in a film, I avoid it. I’ve been caught off guard too many times and I am still haunted by specific images from documentaries, such as the opening scenes of Paradise Lost when the filmmakers show the bodies of three murdered eight year old boys on the banks of a ditch. It’s impossible to erase imagery like that from one’s mind.
I relented after reading the member reviews. The member reviews on Netflix always have the final say. If I am on the fence about watching a movie I work my way through the reviews and will either feel completely compelled to watch a particular movie, or become convinced it is an utter waste of time. The few times I ignored hideous member reviews I regretted it. Deeply.
The Willingham case has been touted by some as the anti-death penalty case. Realistically, it is not ideal because the man at the forefront of the story is described by some accounts as having been abusive to his wife and was also described by witnesses as acting in bizarre ways during and after the fire that killed his young children. However, once you put these factors aside and begin examining the evidence that convicted Willingham, his story turns into something more akin to a cautionary tale about the use of unsubstantiated or junk science. And by junk science I am not referring to arson investigation, but rather the lack of consistency and rigor involved in the training of those responsible for conducting these types of investigations.
Frontline discusses this in some detail, but a much more thorough analysis is provided in a newer documentary called Incendiary: The Willingham Case. This documentary has a number of things going for it. First, it does not push a opinion of guilt or innocence on the viewer, but rather examines the aspects of the investigation that resulted in Willingham’s conviction and then provides an alternate look at this information from the perspective of experts who debunk the original investigation. Second, it is thorough in its analysis of the fire-related science (or lack thereof) that convicted Willingham.
The result is a disturbing and chilling look at one man’s conviction in a state that has a reputation for executing people frequently. A look into past executions in Texas suggest the state has likely executed a number of innocent people. The Last Word is a documentary about the execution of Johnny Garrett. The film is crudely produced and obviously low budget, but it is worth watching because as the story unravels, the viewer gets a disconcerting look at justice – Texas style. Toward the end the filmmakers provide insight into just how far the state of Texas is sometimes willing to go to hide their mistakes.
When Texas executed Garrett they not only likely killed someone who was innocent, they executed someone who was a juvenile at the time the crime was committed and was also mentally handicapped.
Here’s the kicker though. After Garrett was executed, his mother approached the state of Texas to ask for DNA testing of evidence found at the scene of the murder. The state not only denied her request, they threatened to sue her if she pursued it.
Incendiary also shows the state’s refusal to acknowledge mistakes or problems in the methods they use to convict people. The documentary provides footage from meetings involving a commission that was formed and charged with the responsibility of investigating Willingham’s case. The politics that ensue are as infuriating as they are tragic.
Should a capital murder case ever be political? Even once a person is executed for a crime? Does our government have the right to deny the families of those who have been executed the ability to seek answers that may provide definitive information about their guilt or innocence? Because let’s not forget that if the state originally got it wrong it means the real killer or killers are possibly still free to commit future crimes.
Some people might walk away from documentaries detailing Willingham’s case with a clear opinion as to whether the death of his children resulted from a terrible accident, or if they were in fact the victims of murder. I never felt I had enough information from either of the films to make this decision; however, I was absolutely certain that he should not have been on death row based on the evidence presented at his trial.
Finally, Incendiary provides clips of an interview with Willingham’s defense attorney. His perspective is shocking, but not for the reasons you might think. He makes no effort to hide that he believed Willingham was guilty of the murders from the beginning, and he does not even seem astute enough to grasp the concept that innocent people have been convicted, let alone later exonerated. If a person goes into a capital murder trial with a defense attorney who is as closed-minded as he is unsophisticated in wrongful convictions, do they really even stand a chance at a fair trial?
All of the documentaries discussed here are recommended. The Last Word is rugged, but it is important and relevant as arguments pertaining to the death penalty become increasingly fiery.