How the State of Texas Killed an Innocent Man
Trial By Fire: Running Time — 2hr 7min
Emily Meade … Stacy Willingham
Jade Pettyjohn … Julie Gilbert
Tinsley Price … Older Karmon
Carlos Gómez … Fire Inspector
Jeff Perry … Hurst
Anniston Price … Older Kameron
Chris Coy … Daniels
Cameron Todd Willingham was murdered on February 17, 2004. He was summarily executed by the State of Texas after being wrongly convicted of killing his three small children by way of arson. We get to relive this chapter in the film, Trial By Fire, riveting true storytelling and exploration of what happens when overzealous law enforcement officials bastardize the Texas Judicial System for their own political gains. I remembered reading about the aftermath of this case well over a decade ago after reading about it in the Houston Press publication. The in-depth article addressed concerns with the way state official’s so-called experts collected evidence.
We get to see in the film the manner in which these officials went about in speculating what happened and the junk science in which they came to their summation. In a nutshell, it was pure hyperbolic garbage. But the fix was already formed to get Cameron Todd Willingham from the very start. Cameron was not a favorite son, favorite citizen or even the favorite town drunk. He didn’t do himself any favors by the way he treated his wife or any of his friends if he ever had any. Willingham, played by Jack O’Connell, slowly becomes a sympathetic character as we watch him go through his trial. We watch as his court-appointed attorney mounts no defense for his client. This alone would easily be grounds for an appeal but it didn’t happen.
In Willingham’s case, he might as well be a black man for what he got as a defense attorney. Willingham’s main crime was that he was poor white trash and uneducated. He and his wife, Stacy, played by Emily Meade, argued all the time, they fought verbally and physically and the cops were called out on numerous occasions to their place. He was combative during his trial and spoke out a lot and that was because his attorney never objected to any of the testimony the state’s witnesses uttered.
The filmmakers effectively pulled off the courtroom drama without having it bogged down to a Perry Mason moment. Willingham was not presented as the father of the year rather more like the anti-social white trash the people around him perceived.
He enters the Texas Prison System labeled as a baby killer. In prison, there are few crimes that you can commit that even prisoners will not tolerate, one of them is killing babies and the other is being a pedophile. Willingham’s incarceration was met with hostility from both the prisoners and the guards. In one scene he attacks a fellow prisoner only because he knew an attack on him was imminent. This action leads to him getting beat up by the guards afterward. In time, Willingham learns to adjust to life living on death row. He lives a solitary life, eating alone, exercising alone, everything alone. There is a moment where he befriends a fellow death row inmate name, Ponchai James. It is Ponchai who gives him the idea of appealing his case. There was a line Ponchai says to Willingham about the attorney he got for the trial that stayed with me. Poncha said, “Poor folks always get the bad ones.” That may be true but that shouldn’t be the norm. Soon it’s time for Ponchai to take his final walk and he doesn’t go easy. It’s somewhat painful to watch, seeing a man dragged to his death. The steel door down at the end of the hall contains a history of dents over the years from death row inmates fighting the death demon.
Liz Gilbert, played by Laura Dern, enters into his life by chance. What starts off as simple correspondence by letters evolve into Liz looking into Willingham’s case files. She discovers a lot of problems with the case including an ineffectual defense by his attorney at the time. Any first-year law student could easily see that what was done to Willingham in his trial was easily trial error. But it seems as if Willingham was born under a bad moon. As obvious as it was to see on the surface that his case was severely mishandled and the evidence didn’t meet any standards of forensic science, Willingham didn’t gain any appeals. There is one scene where Willingham is reading a letter to Liz and it reminded me of the PBS Civil War series where letters from the war were read to the soldier’s wives. It had that resonance to it that gave that scene some meaning.
We also watch as Daniels, played by Chris Coy, as one of the guards slowly evolves into a friendship. In the beginning, he was a brutal abuser to Willingham but in the end, he was looking for a football ‘Hail Mary’ for an avenue to stay the execution. You could see that somewhere in Daniels core, he believed that Willingham was innocent. The scene where they come to collect Willingham for execution was handled with a sense of respect. They could have made it more intense but they were measured because the execution scene was just as hard.
158 men and women on death row have been exonerated through new procedures and DNA testing. It’s too bad Texas put to death an innocent man. Maybe one day the State will admit that they did kill an innocent man based on junk science and fucking hubris.
Ratings: 4 Out of 5 Stars